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Phuket's Invisible Minority – A Day Without Burmese

Category: , Posted:26 Apr 2008 | 12:00 pm

Each and every day on my way to work, or wherever I travel on the island, one of the most common sights is truckloads of Burmese workers. The recent tragedy of 54 Burmese suffocating in a container truck while being transported for work in Phuket is a stark reminder of the high price paid for economic

prosperity.
Both domestic and international media highlighted the issue, showing gruesome pictures and calling for investigation by the government and for action to be taken. Unfortunately, after a few more days – in the age of instant media and our thirsty appetite for the next event – new tragedies in other far-off places occurred, the Songkran holidays came and went and the deaths of the Burmese workers quickly became old news. Go anywhere in the developed world where prosperity grows, economies skyrocket and the life of the middle and upper classes becomes focused on possessions and consumption of material goods, and there is always the common denominator of cheap migrant labor.
I'm reminded of Director Sergio Arau's cutting-edge cinematic social statement A Day Without a Mexican, where citizens in California wake one day to find all the Latinos gone. It's a poignant, funny and sad commentary on the subject of migrant labor. Imagine how Phuket's landscape would be altered if all the Burmese workers who work in Phuket were suddenly not part of the workforce. Although there are many arguments concerning the pros and cons of illegal migrant labor, the fact remains that the Burmese population in Phuket contributes considerably to the island's construction industry and economy.
The money they are paid, for the most part, re-enters the local economy and benefits local businesses much more quickly than money from Thais and expats. We are not talking about staff who put money into savings accounts, but subsistence workers who spend most of what their daily earnings on feeding, housing and clothing themselves and their families. They buy food from local markets and clothes from our shops. The Burmese look destined to be the face of a silent minority robbed of its voice. The global community continues to remain on the fence regarding solutions and it is far beyond my scope as a property writer to enter into such a political debate.
What is needed locally is a wake-up call on the application of simple safety standards for low-cost labor in our construction industry, be it for Thai or foreign laborers. Minimum sanitary conditions such as toilets and water for workers needs to be provided, along with safety gear such as hard hats and the setting of standards to minimize injury and loss of life. Although Thailand's Ministry of Labor has comprehensive occupational health and safety guidelines, enforcement of them is minimal and the application of on-site safety standards depends primarily on individual businesses and their management. In real life, we cannot expect this to become a burning issue on the political agenda. It is one that will have to be affected by the collective conscience and social responsibility of the private sector.
I remember coming to Phuket about seven years ago and seeing hotel staff transported to work at international hotels and luxury resorts in the same trucks as used for transporting cattle and livestock. Today, however, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Laguna Phuket and the Marriott, which where the first to offer bus transportation for their staff, you now see buses ferrying hotel staff around the island.

An economic boom is a double-edged sword. People become rich but migrant laborers often become an easy target for exploitation. In a perfect world the island's prosperity over the past few years would filter down to the ones who build our homes, hotels, luxury villas, shops, restaurants and offices, but in the real world it's all too easy for employers to find ways of cutting costs and lowering overheads to ensure bigger profits.
What is not reasonable to expect is the high risk of injury or loss of lives as a result of companies trying to save a few baht. Perhaps the message will grow and the next time you see a truckload of Burmese workers you will have a new-found appreciation for what they provide us here in boomtown Phuket.

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