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"Special Economic Zone" solution to

Subject: "Special Economic Zone" solution to Burmese migrants?

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Burma Issues
Vol. 6 No. 4
April 1996



by Alice Davies

The Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) recently
proposed to create a special economic zone on the
Burmese and Cambodian borders. This would
concentrate on production for export, be staffed
with foreign labour and have no minimum wage
requirement. It is expected to address the joint
problems of illegal foreign labour and a labour
shortage. It should be viewed with apprehension.
Thailand has been a signatory to the International
Declaration of Human Rights (Dec.) since 1946
and a member state of the International Labour
Organisation (ILO) since 1919. As such, it has
certain obligations. A member state which has not
ratified a convention is considered 'morally bound'
by a convention or recommendation, unless it
writes to the ILO specifically objecting to the
recommendation or convention.  Whether Thailand
is de facto or de jure bound by the relevant
conventions and recommendations, migrants
workers - legal or illegal - face difficulties, as they
rarely fall within the parameters of the relevant
international law (including, inter alia, Rec. s
86,100 and 151 and Conventions 95,97, 131 and
143) and must rely on the open statements in Arts.
6, 7 and 8 of the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
This is because most of the law relates to state
sponsored migration for employment or to migrants
lawfully within the state (Rec.s 100 and 151).
UNHCR refugees may qualify, but Thailand
recognises all other displaced people as illegal

The Declaration specifies that everyone is entitled
to work, to just and favourable conditions of work
and equal pay for equal work (Art.23 Dec. and
Art.7, ICESCR, reiterated in Conv. 131 and 95)
and that all persons are entitled without
discrimination to the protection of the law (Art. 26,
International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights ICCPR). Art.5 (ICESCR) particularly
excludes the right of any State, group or person to
derogate from these rights by engaging in any
activity or performing any act aimed at the
destruction of any of these rights and freedoms, or
even pretending that the Covenant only recognises
these rights to a lesser extent. 

The Thai government has rejected policy
guidelines, proposed by its own Labour and Social
Welfare Departments that a minimum wage for
foreign workers be implemented. Migrant workers
presently receive 30 - 50 %  of local labour wages. 

These proposals are further formalising the present
situation of immigrant labourers (mostly illegal
Burmese), who may be registered in Thailand.
They may be provided with Thai identification
cards, if guaranteed by their employers, and obtain
a work permit. 

Particularly pertinent is the comment by the FTI
President that the cost of Thai labour is increasing
by about 10% per year. Thai labour is finally
finding its voice and themselves demanding a
liveable minimum wage, or migrating to richer
pastures.  Thai workers have rarely had labour law
upheld in their favour and there appears to be even
less hope for immigrant workers. 
The annual increase in the minimum wage, now
set at 145 baht, is reportedly the most frequently
cited cause for a decline in Thailand's
attractiveness as a low - cost, labour - intensive
production centre. 

Volvo has said that Asia will get the lion's share of
the $1 billion the company wishes to invest outside
the OECD. Thailand must feel threatened by
reports that 'European firms, which missed the boat
in East and Southeast Asia, by failing to invest ...
will not make the same mistake in South Asia . .. 
the fastest growing sector over the next decade will
be consumer products and services' Thailand's
traditional base. Other Asian nations, including
South Korea, are looking at formalising their
foreign labour laws to overcome increasing wage
costs and a shortage of cheap labour, as their own
citizens seek fortune overseas.

One problem illegal migrant workers face is that
Convention No.143, while considering that the
ILO is to protect the interests of workers employed
in countries other than their own and that 'labour is
not a commodity', is purportedly to overcome
underdevelopment and structural and chronic
unemployment. All States, for which it is in force
(including Thailand, which has ratified it), are
required to respect the basic human rights of all
migrant workers. The State must declare and
pursue a policy designed to promote and guarantee
equality of treatment in respect of employment,
occupation, trade union and cultural rights and
individual and collective freedoms. Restricted
access to employment is permitted in the interests
of the State. In the present case, Thais must first
refuse the employment before it can be offered to
immigrants. If it is a situation where Thai labour is
'pricing itself out of a job', the Burmese may not be
afforded the protection this convention should

A further incentive for companies (wanting
alternatives to Bangkok's expensive land) to take
advantage of the cheap labour at the borders is that
the cost of establishing factories is less expensive
and the government is offering incentives to

The Deputy Foreign Minister has suggested joint
Burma - Thai activities and border committees. PM
Barnharn was given a red carpet welcome in
Burma on his recent visit, so the leaders'
relationships appear very positive.  The possibility
of animosity between the neighbouring countries at
grassroots levels is very real. 

Those Thais who are willing or forced to labour
may find themselves unemployed, as unscrupulous
employers take advantage of the cheap labour, as
unscrupulous 'scab' labour to break strikes. The
whole situation is not aided by reference in local
newspapers to the Burmese being spies, security
threats to the nation and carrying disease. The
average Thai person, remembering the deaths of
their countrymen on the border and at sea, cannot
have an easy mind. The decision reflects a global
trend, as the recent G7 nations jobs summit's final
statement is reported to not set minimum standards
for work conditions, job security and social
welfare. In many of the developing nations, there is
a cheap labour shortage, while many developed
nations have high unemployment. The present
trend of the globalisation of business and the
integration of economies, which permits companies
to increase their mobility and therefore bargaining
positions vis avis governments and workers, with
the threat of relocation, must be addressed. 

Desperation on both sides is evident: in the stories
of horror trips across the border and huge fees
extorted to supply the demand for cheap labour in a
global market. 
BP 950827, 951124, 960323, 960331, 960403,
TN 960401, 960402, 960403 
ILO Conventions and Recommendations/