The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
COVER STORY
Wooing Women Workers
By KEVIN R. MANNING/MAE SOT OCTOBER, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.8

Crackdowns on Burmese migrants in Thailand push many women into the flesh trade. When 22-year-old Sandar Kyaw first arrived in Thailand from Burma two months ago, she worked 12-hour days, sewing clothing in one of the many garment factories around the border town of Mae Sot. Now she sits in a hot, dimly lit room in a brothel, watching TV with her co-workers, and waiting for a man to pay 500 baht (US $12.50) for one hour of sex with her. With six younger siblings and her parents struggling to make ends meet in Rangoon, making money is her main priority. "I want to save 10,000 baht and go home," she says. Since factory wages for illegal Burmese migrants average roughly 2,000 baht per month, saving such a sum on her sewing wages would have taken months. When her friend suggested they leave the factory for the more lucrative brothel, Sandar Kyaw agreed. Since she retains half her hourly fee, just one customer a day can net her three times her factory wage. Sandar Kyaw’s choice of the brothel over the factory is not uncommon, say Burmese social workers in Mae Sot. New Thai labor regulations have resulted in factory closures and a tenuous security environment for undocumented Burmese, making steady employment difficult to achieve. For young Burmese women who made the trek to Thailand in hopes of earning money for their families, periods of joblessness or detention squash their hopes of going home with savings. Sandar Kyaw is fortunate to have made the switch out of choice, not necessity. "Some girls who lost jobs in Mae Sot recently ended up in brothels rather than going back to Burma," says Aye Aye Mar, the founder of Social Action for Women, which runs a safehouse in Mae Sot for women seeking to leave the flesh trade. Permits for migrant workers in Thailand expired on Sept 25 and Labor Minister Suwat Liptapanlop said his ministry would "no longer provide work permits for immigrants on a yearly basis except for jobs which Thais refused to do." For the estimated 80,000 Burmese in Mae Sot, the order severely jeopardized their job security and ability to find new employment. "It’s very difficult to get a job in Mae Sot now. Thai officials are very strict," says Moe Swe, spokesperson of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, a Mae Sot organization for Burmese migrant laborers. "In previous years, all the factories hired illegals. Right now most do not." Women were hit especially hard by the new regulations, under which permits could not be renewed for those working as waitresses, hairstylists, gas station attendants and hotel staff. In addition, many shops and factories closed down because Thai employers fear an impending immigration crackdown. Despite not having jobs, many Burmese remain in Thailand because they have no money, says Moe Swe. For young Burmese women in Thailand, Mae Sot’s booming sex trade fills the employment void created by the factory closures and layoffs. The town features over 20 brothels, each with 15 to 20 women, according to Aye Aye Mar. That figure does not include the karaoke bars and restaurants that double as prostitution outlets, or the numerous security guards and motorcycle taxi drivers who will deliver prostitutes to local hotels. Not every woman fetches as high as price as Sandar Kyaw. Some charge as little as 200 baht per hour. After deductions for their living expenses, prostitutes earn an average of 6,000 to 10,000 baht per month, says Moe Swe. By comparison, a Mae Sot factory worker taking home 3,000 baht per month is considered well paid. Inside Burma, garment factory workers earn only 8,000 (US $8 or 320 baht) to 20,000 kyat per month. "Brothels are very rarely raided," says Aye Aye Mar. Therefore, in addition to receiving higher pay, many commercial sex workers enjoy a measure of legal protection most illegal migrants do not. "We don’t worry about the police," adds a local Thai man who prostitutes five Burmese girls out of his mother’s home in Mae Sot. "It’s safe for the girls that work here." Such protection comes at a price. Sandar Kyaw states that money for police bribes is taken out of her fees each month. Reports on the border sex trade by various human rights organizations confirm that such an arrangement is common in Mae Sot. Since commercial sex workers who are deported can be prosecuted for both illegal exit and prostitution by the Burmese authorities, avoiding arrest is of paramount concern. "Most migrants are willing to pay large sums in bribes to Thai officials to avoid arrest, detention and deportation," says a recent report by Washington-based Refugees International. Recruiters armed with information about prostitutes’ wages and brothel owners’ good relationships with authorities travel to factories and workers’ barracks in Mae Sot to entice young women to enter the trade. Women lacking income during immigration crackdowns are especially vulnerable to the recruiters’ pitch, says Moe Swe. Although workers whose factories are temporarily closed regularly hide in the jungle to avoid arrest, recruiters know their locations and will pay them a visit to see if any young women want to do sex work, he adds. Some women who have steady factory jobs choose to become prostitutes part-time for extra income, says Dr Cynthia Maung, who treats sex workers at her Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot. The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, 2002, mentions "evidence of low-level police involvement in…accepting bribes and owning brothels." This claim has been corroborated by international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Asia Watch and Images Asia. Such involvement sometimes results in police officers facilitating the sex trade, say reports and social workers in Mae Sot. "Police are known to sell girls to brothels after they arrest them," says Moe Swe. In some cases, young Burmese women arrested in Bangkok have been approached by brokers and immigration officials en route to the border near Mae Sot and given the choice of becoming sex workers there instead of being deported, says Aye Aye Mar. A 1993 report by Asia Watch says, "The deportation process in many cases…becomes a revolving door back to the brothels." Burma’s declining economy and the fallout from stiffer US sanctions may also fuel an increase in young Burmese women arriving in Mae Sot and ending up in the sex trade. Although the exact number of Burmese illegally crossing the Thai border at Mae Sot is difficult to determine, both Moe Swe and Aye Aye Mar are certain the figure is rising. One factor driving the emigration of women could be the closure of garment factories throughout Burma. The government-sponsored Business Information Group journal, in Rangoon, recently reported that 123 textile and garment factories have been forced to shut their doors since US sanctions took effect in late August. US deputy assistant secretary of state, Matthew Daley, says an estimated 40,000 garment workers from Burma are now out of work, most of them young women. The Burmese business journal says laid-off workers will be employed by state-owned factories. Daley also provided written testimony to a congressional committee saying the US government has credible reports which verify claims made by non-governmental organizations that some former garment workers "have entered the flourishing illegal sex and entertainment industries." Sources in Mae Sot were not aware of any specific cases of former female factory workers now working as prostitutes along the border there. But they added that brokers inside Burma, working with brothel owners in Thailand, would surely target such a vulnerable population. For many prostitutes, the stigma of sex work offsets the monetary gain. Sandar Kyaw says many of her friends in Rangoon turned to prostitution in the Burmese capital when their families faced financial hardship. "I could not do that," she remembers. "The thought that I might be recognized was too much." Sandar Kyaw is pleased her savings are accumulating quickly. She may return home in a few months. But, she adds, "I don’t feel good about being in this business." Aung Su Shin in Mae Sot contributed to this article.

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