For Greener Pastures
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


For Greener Pastures



With few opportunities at home, many young Burmese look overseas for work. But before migrants can earn a dollar abroad they have to face queues, fees, bribes and sometimes danger

RANGOON — EARLY each morning a crowd of young men and women gathers in front of an imposing building on Pansodan Street in central Rangoon. 

They look nervous, and they sweat in the heat as they huddle together waiting for the door to open. Security guards scold them for pushing and shout at them to be patient.

This could be a scene outside a charity foundation, with hapless refugees struggling to get their hands on food rations.

In fact, the building is Burma’s passport office. And the teeming crowd is made up of people who have come to Rangoon from across the country to try to get a passport so they can go abroad and work.

“About 1,000 people swarm outside our building every morning from Monday to Friday,” an officer at the Myanmar Passport Issuing Office told The Irrawaddy.

Most of the applicants are between 18 and 38—about two-thirds are male. Currently, the passport office is issuing some 8,000 to 10,000 Burmese passports per month, with an average waiting time of 40 days.

The anxious crowd at the passport office is yet another reminder of the dire socio-economic crisis in Burma.

With unemployment rife, the cost of living rising and few doors of opportunity open, Burmese have been leaving the country in droves over the past few years. A migrant labor organization based in Thailand estimates that as much as 10 percent of Burma’s 55 million population is now working abroad.

Burma was already an economic basket case before August 2007 when a 100 to 500 percent hike in the retail price of fuel pushed inflation even higher. The cost of basic household commodities and staple foods leapt in price and sparked last year’s anti-government uprising with Buddhist monks leading the calls for political and economic change.

But their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Then, on May 2-3, Cyclone Nargis wrought havoc on the rice-producing Irrawaddy delta, killing thousands, uprooting families and causing widespread food shortages. An exodus to work overseas followed.

“Most of the young people in my village have gone to Malaysia,” 32-year-old Hla Soe told The Irrawaddy. He said that he and 10 others from the village of Kone Gyi in Magwe Division had come to Rangoon to apply for passports. They planned to join their fellow villagers working in a factory in Malaysia.

Hla Soe said that their village was rich in groundnuts, sesame, beans and pulses, but without farm hands to work the fields much arable land had gone fallow. 

Almost every laborer had left the area—the average daily wage of 1,500 to 2,000 kyat (US $1.20-1.60) being insufficient for survival, even in the fertile plains of central Burma.

“I will sell my house to finance a trip to Malaysia,” Hla Soe said. “I think most of the people who go there earn good money. Some of them can send home as much as 100,000 kyat ($80) a month!”

As the family breadwinner, Hla Soe said he is ready to go abroad as soon as he gets a passport. However, that process is fraught with exorbitant fees and frustrations.

“We’ll each have to pay at least 1.15 million kyat ($920) to an employment agency for arranging jobs and the trip to Malaysia,” said one of Hla Soe’s friends from Kone Gyi.

“My mother sold her farm to pay for my expenses,” he added. “I’ve already spent almost 100,000 kyat ($80) in the past 12 days.”

Kone Gyi is not the only village that has lost much of its workforce. Hundred of thousands of workers, from rural areas as well as urban districts, are now leaving the country—not with dreams of adventure and wealth, but just to earn enough to help their families survive.

The employment agencies in Rangoon welcome them with open arms.

According to several sources, the overseas employment agencies charge applicants 1.2 million kyat ($960) to arrange jobs and flights to Malaysia; 3.2 million kyat ($2,560) to Singapore; 1.2 million kyat ($960) to the United Arab Emirates; and as much as $11,000 to Japan—the fees reflect the amount of money migrants can expect to earn in each country.

In fact, because the export of Burmese labor is so lucrative, more than 100 private employment agencies have sprouted up in Rangoon alone.

However, even the entrepreneurs who run these employment agencies say they, in turn, are subjected to inflated fees and bureaucracy.

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