When I was 8 years old, my mother, my two sisters and I were forced to flee Myanmar by foot across the mountains to Thailand.
Like many families, we left Shan State in Myanmar to escape fighting between the Shan State army and the Burmese military.
We crossed into Chiang Mai Province, in Thailand. We had relatives there who worked on an orange farm. Compared to life in Myanmar we felt safe. There were no bombs going off and shooting. No one would kill us.
In Thailand, I didn’t go to school. I had to look after other children and take care of the farm’s cow to help my mother, who worked picking oranges.
Then when I was 13 I also started to work at the orange farm. I worked from 7am until 5pm with one hour break for lunch.
But the managers exploited us and were abusive. I remember one time the managers ganged together and beat up a worker who had been caught sleeping on the job. There were a hundred of us who stood there and watched. No one dared to stop it. No one said anything.
Back then no one had a work permit or ID. The farm workers were scared and didn’t dare talk to a policeman. The managers would intimidate us, saying they wouldn’t pay our wages, they would fire us, and they would tell the police to arrest us.
I started to question how they were treating us. How could people gang up like that to beat someone? I felt it was wrong.
When I was about 16 years old, I went to Chiang Mai city to do construction work. In the beginning I worked on furniture installation and painting. I learned by doing and picked up skills from other construction workers. I was also able to obtain a work permit.
Back then there was still a problem with wages. For example, overtime work was not paid according to the law. But I didn’t know about the law. I was being exploited and I saw my friends also experiencing abuse at work. I knew it wasn’t right. I tried to approach people who worked on labour rights and that is how I found out about an organization called the MAP Foundation.
Through the MAP Foundation I learned about labour rights. And once I learned about labour rights, I realised that migrant workers, including myself, had been seriously exploited in many ways. For example, we weren’t being paid the standard rate. We were forced to work every day without a day off. When we worked on holidays, we didn’t get double payment. And employers would take away workers’ documents.
Also, according to the law, migrant workers were not allowed to do skilled construction work. It wasn’t right. If the authorities found migrant workers doing skilled construction work, they would get arrested, fined and even deported. We were in a difficult situation because the employers didn’t hire workers to do different kinds of construction work, they hired just one crew to do all the work. There are no Thais that do the construction work that we do, it’s only migrant workers. We do everything from start to finish including building the structure, the plastering, the roof, the welding, etc. A lot of this is skilled work, but we had no choice and had to carry on. We were scared all the time about the authorities finding us.
I talked to the MAP Foundation. They helped us to organize a migrant workers’ group called “Solidarity” and together with the MAP Foundation and other labour networks we pushed for a change in the law. I was part of the group who submitted our calls to the provincial governor.
When the law was amended, I was glad. We saw that things really could be changed. So long as our work permits are renewed, we can work as much as we want. We don’t have to be afraid. We have the right to work.
There are many more things I want to see changed. For example, some migrant workers cannot get a driving licence.
The government calls us alien workers. When we are called that, it’s like we are not human beings. We call ourselves migrant workers, because we’ve crossed the border from another country to work here.
But looking on the positive side, if we had stayed in Myanmar, we may not have survived. I am glad to be living in Thailand and working here. Although some see us as people who aren’t clean or knowledgeable, others are good and don’t discriminate between Thais and migrant workers.
I’m 33 now, married and have a 12-year-old girl and two-year-old boy. My child studies in the same classroom as the Thai children. I feel good about that. I am proud that they aren’t separated. And once, when there was a case of bullying, I told the schoolteacher. The teacher talked to all the children about making an effort to understand each other. I want my children to keep on studying.
Now, my sisters work at the same place as me. They both have families and kids. They do construction work like me. So does my mother. Although we feel good to be here, the wages are really low, so we live from hand to mouth. Renewing the work permit is expensive. And our lives here are not stable or secure. We also ask ourselves: how long will be allowed to stay? If one day Thailand doesn’t extend our work permit, we will have to leave. But for now, if we have any problems related to the government, or to work permits and our work, we still have the MAP Foundation to consult with and get knowledge from.