Southeast Asia's vulnerable migrants pose an economic dilemma

Last Updated on March 14, 2018, 9:57 a.m.

JAKARTA/BANGKOK -- A court case unfolding in Bangkok has focused attention on the lives of migrant workers in Southeast Asia, albeit with an unexpected twist. This time, an employer accused of abuse is suing its former employees.

Fourteen migrants from Myanmar are on trial for making false human rights claims against Thammasaket, a chicken farm operator. They are also accused of providing false information to public officials.

The labor ministry previously ordered the company to extend a total of 1.7 million baht ($54,000) in compensation to the workers, for violations such as underpayment of wages and insufficient time off. But Thammasaket is refusing to pay.

"This is defamation," the company's lawyer told the court on the first day of the trial, Feb. 7. Street food vendors who work in the farm's neighborhood were brought in to testify. "We saw the Myanmar workers come out to the market," one vendor said, supporting the company's argument that the employees were granted sufficient free time. "They looked really happy."

Regardless of whether the defendants had valid grievances against Thammasaket, the case has stoked debate over the working conditions facing millions of migrants across the region. All too often, abuses are more clear-cut -- and sometimes even fatal.

In Malaysia, where around 400,000 foreign maids work, an Indonesian named Adelina Sao died in a hospital in Penang on Feb. 11. She had been found with head injuries and infected wounds on her limbs, after two years working in the country. Neighbors of the family accused in Sao's death said she was forced to sleep on the porch beside the dog.

Migrants from Myanmar work in a garage on the outskirts of Bangkok. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

In response, Indonesia has threatened to ban citizens from working as domestic helpers in Malaysia. "A moratorium is important so we can restructure our employment system [for migrant workers] to prevent cases such as Adelina's from happening again," Indonesia's ambassador to Malaysia, Rusdi Kirana, said on Feb. 15.

Although there have been a number of similar cases in recent years -- including one in which a Malaysian couple accused of killing a maid by starvation were sentenced to death in 2014 -- Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi described Sao's ordeal as an "isolated case" and said he hoped Indonesia would not impose a ban.

There are no easy answers, given the scale of migration in Southeast Asia and the economic disparities that drive it.

Nearly 7 million Southeast Asian migrant workers toil within the region, according to the International Labour Organization. Most hail from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, while most work in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. They have become indispensable to their home countries and hosts alike.

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