Myanmar’s workers of the world

This column was published at The Myanmar Times on Monday, 4 May 2015

The first time I had a long chat with somebody from Myanmar was in Thailand. Many moons ago. They, like millions of their compatriots, had left the “Golden Land” seeking opportunity and safety across the border. I recall our efforts – the suburban Australian kid, the hardened migrant worker – to find common ground. We both talked about dreams, and settled on discussing football.

Since then I have met many other migrant workers, and not just in Thailand. Until recently, the incentives for escaping Myanmar’s lacklustre economic conditions and the stagnant politics of misery were immense. It’s hard to blame people for taking the chance for greater wealth, health and security in foreign lands.

While such migrants once had limited options, and most simply scurried across the river to Mae Sot, Mae Sai and beyond, a whole universe of possibilities now open up from Yangon’s international airport. When you sit to watch the comings and goings, it becomes clear that Myanmar’s workers are on the move in unprecedented numbers, travelling far and wide.

They are quickly becoming familiar faces from the posh shopping districts of Kuala Lumpur to the industrial zones of the Middle East. Thousands crew ships that sail to the farthest corners of the world.

Getting to grips with their lives is no simple task. Experiences vary so wildly. The unlucky can be collared at border formalities, or the many checkpoints established across Southeast Asia and around the world, for the express purpose of blocking those whose paperwork doesn’t add up.

Millions of others, however, manage to get ahead – often with official endorsements, but sometimes through a mix of guile, luck and good timing. They end up surviving, often on the margins, in societies far from their own. Some will harbour ambitions of further movement. Once in Kuala Lumpur, say, it can be exciting to consider the chance of covering the short distance to Singapore. Pay rates can double or triple for those who end up in the Lion City.

And then there is still the possibility of striking out for more distant shores: the Middle East, Europe, North America, Australia. It all takes planning, judgement and courage, and a hunger for economic betterment.

That large numbers of Myanmar’s migrants end up prey for criminals, exploited and discarded, is part of a wider problem. Ethnic minorities, and especially those from groups that don’t have full citizenship in Myanmar, are ripe for exploitation. When these stories hit the news there is some level of outrage, leavened by resignation that there are too many ills in the world. Muslims from western Myanmar are among those who seem to do it toughest when they seek out opportunities abroad.

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom, and the possibilities for migrants are probably better than ever. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, to name just the three most obvious countries, all require huge surges of youthful and energetic labour to take care of the jobs that their own people can’t or won’t do.

Foreign labour helps to keep goods and services cheap, and also frees up the Thais, Malaysians and Singaporeans to study longer and harder, and work toward achieving solid middle-class status. This means that the jobs lower on the economic pecking order are open to those who want to build new lives in foreign lands.

Later in the year the ASEAN Economic Community will spring to life and, in the long term, the management of intra-regional labour migration will be a big issue. The theory is that everyone benefits when workers can move to places that pay them more for their time and commitment. They can send money home, of course, but also have a chance to build their expertise, create networks and get new things happening. In practice many migrant workers end up stuck: physically and emotionally, struggling simply to survive another day on low pay.

Some suggest that it is only at home that genuine long-term opportunities can be found. Increasingly in Myanmar I find myself bumping into former migrants. The taxi driver who spent 10 years machining precision parts in Malaysia, the drunk lads in Hpa-an who crewed cargo ships around the world, the former professor now doing sterling service as a policy entrepreneur: What they have in common is awareness that Myanmar can offer fresh opportunities for those who take a chance at home.

It’s not always easy to return, with many former migrants struggling to adjust to the reception they receive back in Myanmar. Former migrant workers may bring capital, skills and languages to the table, but there aren’t always the right opportunities for them. They may stumble around in the hope that solid chances will emerge. They may need to cool their heels until Myanmar society catches up to the need for their training and expertise. In the meantime they can wait, think, dream.