Workers Safe Haven

International Labor Organizing

P1010028 (2)Mae Sot The morning had begun before dawn as I walked the downtown streets of Mae Sot in the company of hundreds of orange clad Buddhist monks of all ages as they padded silently in bare feet along the streets to find their sustenance from the alms of believers, some sitting ready to feed them and receive a chanted blessing.   This was a good reminder of the monks’ role in the saffron rebellion in Rangoon in 2007 which almost toppled the military regime there.

We transported over to a safe house maintained by the Burma Labor Solidarity Organization (BLSO) to meet with their staff, see the facility, and meet as well with the a representative of the Federation of Trade Unions Burma (FTUB).  Interestingly, the reasons a safe house made sense here on the borderland, might resonant with the curious twists and turns of US immigration policy as well. The safe house was a primary project of our great friends and supporters at the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) and their yellow flag greeted us as we entered and sat down to meet with our colleagues.

The need for a safe house or solidarity house, as our friends called it euphemistically, lies squarely on the illegal status of the Burmese refugees and their ability to find work along the borderland.  Almost all of these workers are undocumented and living in a grey status for many decades. The Thai and Burmese governments announced a plan to provide work documents for the Burmese, but many believe this is little more than a fund raising scheme for the junta with the Thai’s acting as the ticket collector.  To get the documents that would be good for two years requires successfully mastering some 17 steps and paying hundreds of dollars for the permits by workers who are lucky to make that amount of money in a month. The safe house becomes a place for workers, often living where they work in dormitories, to come when they are suddenly and forcibly dismissed by their employers.  The BSLO told us that sometimes all 50 spots in the house were filled.  Not long ago 200 were dismissed and BSLO had to find a place for all of them quickly in a huge area.  Sometimes they are supporting these workers for months while they get legal help and try to overturn the situation. It is easy to imagine in the new immigration enforcement strategy in the US which is focusing on firing workers rather than deporting them, such safe houses could be important instruments of support and resistance to house undocumented workers as they find themselves suddenly cast out of work.  The dorms might be different, but the need for sustenance stays the same.

The Burmese all around Mae Sot have no hopes of legalization.  Even their children born in Thailand remain stateless with hopes of a return to Burma or Karen province. Public policy seems rooted in denial, which also seems similar to what we know in North America.