Thailand: Founders of Migrant Workers Network Get ILRF Award

Secretary General Sawit Kaewwan of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) and President Aung Kyaw of the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) received awards yesterday in Washington, D.C., for their work to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers in Thailand. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) presented the labor rights defenders awards to Kaewwan, Aung Kyaw and others May 22 in an event hosted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

“Before the Migrant Worker Rights Network, there were no organizations inside Thailand dedicated to promoting and defending the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrant workers at work,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, who presented their awards.

SERC is largest labor union organization in Thailand representing more than 180,000 members in state-owned enterprises.

“Our awardees tonight are innovators in thinking about how do we come up with the global networks and the grassroots organizing that can help provide a counterbalance to the ever- sprawling global corporate supply chains,” said Judy Gearhart, ILRF executive director. “Because there needs to be that possibility for workers to speak up and have a voice  vis-a-vis their employers whether or not their employers—the ones that have the influence—are thousands of miles away or in their home country.”

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin also received an award from the ILRF for championing the rights of workers at home and abroad and promoting labor rights conditionality clauses in U.S. trade agreements.

MWRN, founded by Burmese migrant workers in 2009, with support from the Solidarity Center and Human Rights and Development Foundation, has organized migrant workers into an informal trade union network. Its membership has grown to more than 700 workers, who labor primarily in seafood processing plants and also in the auto parts and plastics sectors and furniture-making industry.

Legally, migrants are prohibited from organizing or forming a union or collective bargaining in Thailand, which has not ratified core ILO Conventions 87 and 98 guaranteeing the freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. More than 75 percent of the workforce—including Thai workers and more than 2.5 million migrant workers—is prohibited or severely limited by law and practice from exercising these fundamental human and labor rights.

In 2012, MWRN hosted an historic and high-profile visit by Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. During her visit, she held a private meeting at the MWRN office to hear migrant worker concerns and recommendations to improve their labor rights. Aung San Suu Kyi then brought their issues to the Thai government and promised to work with the authorities to address their problems. Migrant workers in Thailand often face dangerous working conditions, workplace injuries, unpaid wages, fear of employer retaliation and threats, extortion and forced labor and trafficking.

By enabling migrant Burmese workers in Thailand to “join together to stand up to major seafood manufacturers and exporters and demand safer conditions and fair wages, they can win;” said Bader-Blau. “And when railway workers in Thailand can organize, they can tell their bosses, ‘No’ to unsafe working conditions, they can save lives.”