Myanmar migrants in factories and brothels, Thailand

Over the 15 years I’ve studied migration, I’ve seen remarkable consistency in the reasons migrants give for travelling to other countries to work, whether they end up in factories or brothels. The report Assessment of Mobility and HIV Vulnerability among Myanmar Migrant Sex Workers and Factory Workers in Mae Sot District, Tak Province, Thailand, published by IOM-Bangkok in 2007, describes qualitative and quantitative research to assess HIV vulnerability among migrant sex workers and migrant factory workers. I’ve reproduced a few small excerpts that show the economic overlaps and interdependencies amongst migrant workers in both factories and brothels and the people that facilitate their travels and jobs. 

‘About crossing the border to Thailand

A range of companions and contacts facilitate the migrant’s journey to Thailand. Many cross the border with relative ease together with a family member or friends who had been to the Thai side previously. . . .

Some . . .  are brought to the Thai side of the border through the employment of “carriers” or brokers (commonly referred to as gae-ri in Bamar or nai nah in Thai), who offer migrants job placement opportunities that would otherwise be almost impossible to achieve without a contact. . . .

Brokers are present on both sides of the border and seek to make money through providing transport and employment assistance to migrants in need.

In the context of sex work, some brokers inform the women about the specific type of work prior to providing assistance while others merely explain that the women could make a substantial amount of money sitting and talking with customers at a bar.

There is evidence to suggest that brokers provide the initial capital for the women to migrate to Thailand and then sell them to a karaoke bar or brothel. The women are then bound to work off the amount of money that was paid by the brothel to the broker.

Not all brokers work in conjunction with the brothels and karaoke bars in Mae Sot. Some facilitate contact with factories and farms and are paid directly by the migrant. . .

Factory versus sex work

Though factory work is certainly the most sought after type of employment, it is not consistently available. Many migrants are forced to wait several months for positions or find other endeavours as day labourers, farmhands, construction workers or housemaids, or simply return home. “Those who come back say if you work for one year here you can’t even save enough to build a bamboo hut, whereas if you work in Thailand for one year, it is possible to build a proper house.”6

Commercial sex services in Mae Sot District tend to be located around construction sites and factories. These establishments employ mostly female migrant workers and tend to cater to Thai nationals. . . . “if available, male migrant workers will seek out karaoke women or sex workers who are of the same language group in order to communicate more easily . . .”.21

The narratives of the sex workers often described the following environment: . . .  They usually work for an initial four to eight months. In most instances this allows them to save a substantial amount of revenue, which they in turn use to invest in a business or other endeavour in Myanmar. After paying off any debt owed to the brothel or karaoke boss, several of the respondents returned to Myanmar. . . and began a small business, such as a teashop, or provide for the family to continue working as farmers. 17

All the sex workers that took part in the discussions said they wanted to stop working in the profession and were actively building their savings for the future. One 24-year-old sex worker said: “I have to work here like I am a businesswoman. It’s good to work for one, two months or at the most four to five months. I work till I get some things for my kids, like a house, then I have the capital to invest.” After returning home and new difficulties have arisen, many young women return to their old life in Mae Sot, a life that provided them with enough money for their dependents and their future. This story of migration was described very often during the discussions and interviews. Some respondents said they returned to Mae Sot as many as three or four times.’

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