More than 80 per cent of migrant workers in Thailand are from Myanmar. A community radio has caught their ear helping them to understand Thailand’s immigration laws and advocating for their rights at work.

25 June 2012

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – When Aung San Suu Kyi addressed delegates at the 101st session of the International Labour Conference on 14 June, she also referred to the two million people from Myanmar who have crossed the border into Thailand in search of work.

The Chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar said that both Thailand and Myanmar had “no clear migration policy”, with the result that “migrant workers are still facing frequent and significant rights violations because neither Burma nor Thailand has adopted a rights-based approach to managing migration”.

Earning little more than US$6 per day on average, many Burmese migrant workers find themselves caught up in a bewildering and relatively costly system of rules and procedures, written in a language they don’t understand. And there are few places to turn if they encounter any problems.

MAP Radio with its weekly show “Voices without borders” is one of these places. The broadcast goes out each Monday morning on community FM radio in Chiang Mai
and nearby Mae Sot – another area with a high concentration of migrant workers from Myanmar.

Supported by the ILO’s TRIANGLE Project (Tripartite Action to Protect Migrants within and from the Greater Mekong Sub-region from Exploitation) and AusAID, the Australian Government’s Aid Programme, the radio show is one of several produced by the MAP Foundation, an NGO based in Chiang Mai.

The programme has a loyal following, particularly as it is broadcast in Shan, the local language of many of the migrant workers. As a phone-in show it is dedicated to helping migrant workers understand Thailand’s immigration laws and advocating for rights at work. Thousands of migrant workers either tune in to the live broadcast each week or, if they have any access to the Internet, download the programmes.

“Many migrant workers call into this radio programme,” explains Ying Horm, the presenter of “Voices without borders”. “They discuss the difficulties they face and they share a lot of information – they also ask lots of questions.”

Most of those who listen to Ying Horm each Monday morning are either labourers or domestic workers who find it easier to take part in the phone-in segment.

Most have stories to tell about contract violations or questions to ask about procedures for work permits. Those with serious grievances and contract violations are directed to a paralegal working with the programme, to review and pursue claims off the air.

The coordinator of the MAP Foundation, Jackie Pollock, says “Voices Without Borders” and the other radio programmes provide a space for migrants to communicate with each other openly.

“For years many migrants have lived in hiding and when they do venture out they are often afraid to speak their language in public,” she says, referring to the fact that many migrants are not fully documented to work in Thailand and could face harassment, arrest and deportation.

She adds that the radio programmes are “particularly important for domestic workers who listen (via the FM receivers) on their mobile phones”.

On a building site near Chiang Mai University, one of the workers called Mung says: “I’ve learned about my rights at work and important things like updating my passport. So it’s been very useful to me.”

“This radio programme has been a critical part of informing and protecting migrant workers,” says Kuanruthai Siripatthanakosol, the ILO’s national project coordinator for the TRIANGLE Project in Thailand. She adds that representatives of the government and social partners in other cities in Thailand – and in neighbouring countries – have expressed an interest in replicating this type of outreach. –http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/press-and-media-centre/insight/WCMS_184013/lang–en/index.htm?shared_from=media-mail

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Allan Dow works for the Regional Unit for Partnerships in the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok.