Exodus of workers grows as living costs rise in Myanmar

Despite a 30 percent hike in the daily minimum wage last year, the soaring cost of living in Myanmar is driving workers abroad for better incomes. More recently, a growing number are leaving the country illegally, braving life-threatening conditions and risking deportation to find better paying jobs in neighbouring Thailand and farther south in Malaysia.

Even though they risk ending up jail in Malaysia without proper work permits and passports, Myanmar migrant workers Ma Su Myat, 23, and her husband Ko Zin Wine, 26, both decided to live there for another two years to work .

Four years ago, she worked as a clerk at a furniture factory in Mingalardon township, Yangon, after she dropped out of her second year of university.

She was paid K80,000 a month, and after a year of working, her pay was increased to K120,000.

Her husband worked in the same factory, but their combines incomes only came to K250,000 a month, which wasn’t sufficient to meet their daily needs.

In 2017, she and her husband went to Malaysia illegally to look for work. They paid K900,000 each to a broker to enter Malaysia through Thailand.

They first entered Thailand via the immigration gates of Kaungthaung, Myanmar, with tourist visas.

From there, they had to travel by boat, car and on foot to get into Malaysia. In total, it took a week to reach Malaysia, said Ma Su Myat.

“It was a very tiring trip. We were packed into a small car. It was a four-hour boat ride at night, then we had to walk through the jungle for five hours to cross into Malaysia” she said about her experience.

The group of migrants she was with, 20 in all, were lucky and made it into Malaysia without being arrested.

Ma Su Myat said that she and her husband worked in a garment factory first in Malaysia. She now works in a restaurant from 6am to 3pm daily for RM1450 (US$352) a month.

Ko Zin Wine now works in a car workshop and gets paid about RM2100 a month.

Labour exodus

Myanmar raised its minimum daily wage twice, to K3600 in 2015 and K4800 in 2018. However, workers and labour organisations have asked for K6600 for eight hours of work a day.

Workers say they have difficulties meeting expenses despite the minimum wage raise.

Workers making minimum wage in Myanmar are bracing for higher costs because the government announced higher electricity tariffs this month.

At some worker dormitories in Yangon, new electricity meters have been installed in each room, and tenants will have to pay for electricity based on their monthly usage. In the past, electricity and water costs were covered by the employer. The added cost of living more than offsets the rise in the minimum wage, workers say.

As a result of rising costs and limited employment opportunities, the number of people leaving Myanmar to seek employment abroad has been rising monthly, officials say.

Labour Ministry data shows that 150,000 people left Myanmar in 2017 for better jobs and income.

In 2018, despite the minimum wage being increased to K4800, the number of people leaving to work abroad rose to 230,000. In the first five months of this year, about 120,000 left the country to work overseas.

The Malaysian government introduced a minimum wage of RM1100 (K399,000) a month in January.

According to Myanmar’s official prescribed agency fees, people who want to work in Malaysia legally must pay US$850 and K65,000 in fees, roughly K1.3 million in total.

While there are legal avenues for migrants to work in Malaysia, the number of Myanmar workers who depart to Malaysia illegally has been rising since 2018, Bangkok-based Myanmar labour attaché U San Maung Oo told The Myanmar Times last week.

He said that nearly 100 Myanmar workers are arrested in Thailand monthly while they were waiting to get into Malaysia due to crackdowns on undocumented workers and human trafficking by the Malaysian and Thai governments.

Recently, Myanmar signed an agreement with Thailand to deport illegal workers detained along the border with Malaysia to Myanmar without sending them to jail.

“It is less of a problem for illegal migrants if Thai authorities find them. But, we worry about those who are abandoned by smugglers in remote jungle areas,” U San Maung Oo said.

He advises all Myanmar migrants to contact his office in Bangkok and ask for help if they are abandoned in the jungle or are facing any other problems.

Rising casualties

The Voice of America radio service, citing information from Thai authorities, reported that about 7000 illegal Myanmar workers were arrested at the border while waiting to enter Malaysia in just the first half of this year.

In January, four Myanmar migrants died and 19 were injured in a road accident in Thailand while being ferried in a van to Malaysia illegally.

A similar accident occurred in Malaysia in May, when a small vehicle packed with 14 Myanmar migrants crashed, killing three and injuring seven seriously.

After Myanmar’s 2015 general election won by the National League for Democracy, many migrant workers returned to Myanmar in the hopes that conditions in the country would improve, but many began returning to their former employers in Malaysia illegally after encountering the same issues of rising costs lack of job opportunities in their homeland, U San Win said.

“Many returnees tried to start their own businesses with the money they earned in Malaysia, but found the going hard. They were soon lured back to Malaysia by more job opportunities and better wages. Often, employers in Malaysia asked their experienced Myanmar workers to come back to work for them,” he said.

Ko Naing Lin Tun, 36, and his 25-year-old wife, who live in a squatter house in Hlaing Tharyar township, Yangon, decided to depart for Malaysia to work.

They asked to borrow K3 million from their parents to pay agency fees as they want to work legally in Malaysia.

Labour rights organisations estimate that over 500,000 Myanmar migrants are living and working in Malaysia and most of them are illegal.

The Malaysian government recently announced an amnesty from August to December this year that allows illegal workers in the country to return to their native countries after paying a fine of RM700.

However, illegal workers who leave under the amnesty are not allowed to return to Malaysia for five years.

“If it is possible, we don’t want to live abroad anymore. We are eager to go back home right now if everything is OK in Myanmar” said illegal migrant worker Ma Su Myat, who has been working in Malaysia for over two years.

Source: Myanmar Times

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