The True Cost of Our Cheap Clothing: Modern Slavery

This article is the third within the series “The True Cost of Our Cheap Clothing”, which explores the exploitative world of the fast fashion industry within our very home: Thailand. This article touches on the antagonistic history between Thailand and Myanmar, and elucidates the institutionalized xenophobia and discrimination against migrant workers through displaying Thailand’s current attitudes towards Burmese workers within the textile industry.

Throughout history, geographical neighbors Thailand and Myanmar (formerly known as Siam and Burma) conflicted over territorial demands and have thus always viewed one another as opposition. Although Siam was viewed as the most formidable of the two, Burma’s attack on Siam in the 18th century brought down Siam’s former capital, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. Despite the great loss, Siam quickly regained lost ground but tensions between the Siamese and the Burmese remained. Today, Burmese people living in Thailand are stereotypically thought of as illegal migrants and/or drug smugglers, although that is rarely the case (Shaw). Many Burmese people, however, when migrating to Thailand in the hopes of a better life, unknowingly fall into the confinement of modern slavery.

Issues of illegal immigration and forced labor are incredibly prominent within the Thai garment industry. Migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, make up the majority of the 850,000 workers employed within the industry. In the employer’s attempt to exploit the Burmese migrants’ pursuit of a better life, many of them, when employed, get paid 40-60% less than Thai workers (Stotz). Therefore, although Thai garment workers are usually paid less than the official 300 Baht minimum wage, migrant workers are paid significantly less compared to others in light of the fact that they are victims of forced labor. One in four people in Myanmar live in poverty (although this number must have certainly worsened corresponding to the recent coup d’état), and out of desperation, these people often migrate to Thailand in the name of prosperity. Desperation drives people to vulnerability; traffickers prey on the young and defenseless to induce, and if successful, the Burmese migrants earn close to nothing and have no control over their wellbeing (McKnight).

On top of that, zero, evidently so, is the number of migrant workers receiving social insurance. This is because many are undocumented or are simply left in the dark due to the language barrier, meanwhile, employers turn a blind eye. In Thailand, the insured is entitled to injury and sickness benefits, maternity benefits, retirement benefits, and unemployment benefits among other advantages. Such benefits are crucial to lead a satisfactory life; they provide a foundation of stability. Around three in four Thai workers have social insurance. Additionally, in accordance with the standards of the International Labour Organization, all female workers must have the right to 12 or 13 weeks of maternity leave. However, in most cases when migrant workers get pregnant, they are immediately fired by their employers and are thus excluded from the rights of maternity leave (Stotz).

Their working and living conditions are equally appalling. Working overtime, beyond what is permitted by law, in garment factories with no ventilation nor water and without receiving supplementary pay, illustrates their arduous daily lives. Their living conditions are poor: the majority of migrant workers live in overpriced, unhygienic, and crowded accommodation on factory grounds. In some cases, dormitories are provided by the employers, but part of their salaries are deducted to compensate for the cost of the accommodation (International Trade Union Confederation).

Migrant workers make a significant contribution to the society and economy of Thailand; without them, the domestic garment industry would be insubstantial. The xenophobic discrimination practiced by the Thai garment industry is forbidden under the code of conduct of many international buyers, and contravenes agreements made by the United Nations and the International Labour Organization. Candidly, migrant workers should be entitled to the same treatment, remuneration, working and living conditions, along with access to social security rights as local workers but alas the reality is anything but promising. Those who have political power in Thailand must therefore challenge and reverse the discrimination and exploitation of migrant workers as opposed to further institutionalizing the existing xenophobia.

Works Cited

International Trade Union Confederation. “Thailand: Violations of All Core Labour Standards and Exploitation of Migrant Workers.” Thailand: Violations of All Core Labour Standards and Exploitation of Migrant Workers, 26 Nov. 2007, http://www.ituc-csi.org/thailand-violations-of-all-core.

McKnight, Mia. “Trafficked in Thailand: The Results of Poverty in Myanmar.” BORGEN, 4 Nov. 2020, http://www.borgenmagazine.com/trafficked-in-thailand-the-results-of-poverty-in-myanmar/.

Shaw, J.C. “History and Boundary Bound: Burma and Thailand’s Relationship through the Centuries.” Chiang Mai Citylife, 8 Jan. 2021, http://www.chiangmaicitylife.com/clg/our-city/history/burma-thailands-relationship/.

Stotz, Lina. Facts on Thailand’s Garment Industry. Clean Clothes Campaign, cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/factsheets/thailand-factsheet-2-2015.pdf.

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