Above: Jarred outside the latrine whose construction was funded in the Spring of 2012 by GlobeMed at UC.
Today was yet another educational and busy day. Ko Myo came to pick us up at 9AM with the “school bus” and we headed south from Mae Sot to Phrop Phra (we learned that the “h” is silent in Burmese, so it’s pronounced “pop pra”). We drove about 45 minutes on a very smooth highway before turning off the street into a (pothole-ridden) dirt road.
The first stop was The Best Friends Migrant Learning Center. This MLC was very similar to the one we saw yesterday; it was constructed out of cinder blocks and funded by a European NGO. We sat down with the headmaster, who, through Ko Myo’s translations, was able to answer some of our questions about the situation of these migrant workers. Afterwards, we visited three migrant “target communities” (as Ko Myo calls them) where the workers settle. These are groupings of huts on the farmland that the migrants work.
What we learned was very crucial for our understanding of the situation of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. First, he made the distinction between migrant workers in Mae Sot versus those in Phrop Phra. Those who live in the city tend to have documents, work in factories, have access to many more NGOs, and generally are more protected. The migrants who live in Phrop Phra are agricultural workers, live in bamboo constructed huts, have virtually no NGO assistance, are generally undocumented, earn well below the minimum wage established by the Thai government for migrant laborers, and finally lack access to any kind of medical help when they are sick or injured. The kids of these families rarely attend schools since they are so isolated and travel is expensive.
In short, this is exactly the community we need to be working in. The Burmese migrant workers in Phrop Phra are so difficult to reach and distant from cities that it would be difficult or impossible for a non-grassroots NGO to reach them. Speaking through Ko Myo, it was expressed over and over the need for basics: clean drinking water (often times the camps drink from the same water used to irrigate crops), sanitary latrines (often times they are a shack with hole in the ground), and healthcare (they cannot afford to drive to a doctor).
Bigger than us, there are issues that clearly need to be addressed on a (inter)national level. The Thai government needs to crack down on farmers who hire unregistered migrants and only pay them 60B/day for back breaking work ($2). They need to open up the registration process to enable more Burmese to work legally in this country, rather than closing their eyes and pretending so many undocumented workers don’t exist. There needs to be occupational safety inspections so migrant laborers aren’t forced to spray harsh pesticides and fertilizer by hand without protection for their lungs. There should be some mechanism for integrating migrant laborer children into Thai school, rather than letting them sit at home or work in the fields. These are issues that cannot be solved easily or without serious legislative and attitude change toward the issue as a whole.
My final thought on the whole experience is that it is impossible to not draw parallels to the illegal Hispanic immigration debate in our own country. It’s shocking to see what dangerous conditions could exist for migrant agriculture laborers if no one stands up for their most basic protections. Imagine if we forced the children of undocumented workers to attend separate school than American children? After all, it was SCOTUS that declared “separate is inherently unequal.” I think everything we’ve seen and heard today about immigrants’ rights leads back our discussions in GhU (GlobeMed’s global health curriculum) about human rights, what we consider them to be, and who gets to exercise their full rights. Saying these things in a classroom is one thing, but acting on them and advocating in public for them is another. I’ll end with a quote from Gandhi: “To believe in something and not to live it, is dishonest.” My hope is that, as members of GlobeMed, we are living out our beliefs about indelible human rights.