The Exploited Workers of Thailand’s Tourism Industry

The Exploited Workers of Thailand’s Tourism Industry

Sometimes when you travel, you meet people whose impact on you far outweighs the time you spend with them. For me, Luke was one of those people.

Luke was a short, caramel-skinned Burmese man, 25 years old, who worked as a tour guide in a Myanmar harbour town called Myeik. Our relationship started out as business – a backpacker meeting a tourism operator – but it quickly became clear that we got on really, really well.

He took me to a candlelit, nighttime Buddhist festival on an island near his village, where I was introduced to the presiding military officer. We drank awful homebrewed rice wine in a thrown-together backyard speakeasy, wandered through rubber plantations and chain-smoked as we drifted on a passenger boat down the Tanintharyi River. I met his friends, and over endless bowls of tangy Burmese food in noisy open-air restaurants, he told me about his life.

Luke was born in a small village near Myeik. He started working regularly on his family’s fishing boat when he was in grade four, about eight years old. He has a scar on his chest from his flesh scraping against barnacle-covered rocks when he was 12. Growing up, he adored his younger sister, and still keeps his nails long on one hand because she thinks it suits him. He finished school as a teenager and went to university in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, where he was for the 2007 monk-led protests that saw the military open fire on the crowd. 

After that, he went to Thailand to find work. This is a necessity for millions of poverty-stricken Myanmar nationals, since the domestic factories and companies are largely foreign-owned, and staffed with Chinese or Thai workers. He lived in the coastal city of Chumphon – where tourists catch ferries to the nearby islands of Koh Samui, the diving-mecca Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan, famed for its Full Moon Party – for four years.   

One day, over a bowl of hot noodles, I asked him if he liked Thailand.

I will never forget the depth of emotion in his voice when he replied, slowly and evenly and with absolute certainty, “I hate it.”

I looked at him, surprised. I was just making conversation, not expecting such a serious response. Luke, usually all jokes and smiles, didn’t seem to notice my confusion and continued in this suddenly grave tone, his eyes transformed into black wells of memory.  

“In Thailand, there is no justice,” he said.

“I know the Thai language, I know it very well, but I will never speak it. If a Thai person rings to ask me to show them around, to be a tour guide, I will hang up the phone. There is no justice in that place.”

He told me that he was paid 250 baht a day – 10 Australian dollars – to build houses. However, the police knew when payday was, and they would wait for the Burmese migrant workers to go and collect their earnings.

“They say, ‘Money, passports, phone!’ and only give the passport back,” Luke said. “No money, no phone – only passport.”

He was supposed to collect his pay from an office at 5pm, and sometimes the police would wait there until as late as midnight for the Burmese workers to make their exit.

Burmese people are easily recognised by Thai locals, especially since many of them continue to wear Thanaka, a gold cosmetic cream that is commonly worn in Myanmar. This makes them easy targets, and police frequently stop them as they’re walking and take everything they have.

As Luke was telling me this, something clicked. I had seen workers with gold symbols on their faces in places like Koh Phangan, dozens of them. At the time, I didn’t know what it was, and my friends and I speculated that it must be some sort of religious costume.

Actually, the creamy paste is a display of bravery and pride. It’s a defiant symbol, a way of marking one’s self as Burmese in a country where the Burmese are treated like dirt.

My eyes began to burn as I made the connection between Luke’s story and my own naive travels through the sun-kissed paradise islands, and the countless Myanmar nationals who had, unbeknownst to me, served me on my Thai adventure.  

Luke told me that if he and his friends were in a restaurant and foreigners came in, the Burmese would be made to leave. He told me that all the menial work in Thailand is done by the Burmese, work that the locals don’t want to do themselves. And he told me about the playground.

For those four years he lived with 10 other Burmese men in a single room with a playground behind it, like a football field. At night, he said, Burmese people would die there.

“How did they die?” I asked him.

“We don’t know.”

At first, I thought there must have been a translation issue – his English wasn’t perfect – or that I just plain didn’t understand what he meant. But this conversation was taking place in a restaurant with the Burmese news playing on a TV on the wall, and as we were talking an item came on with English subtitles. It was about a group of female Burmese migrant workers who were waiting for a pick-up somewhere in Thailand, when a truck left the road and ploughed into them. 20 injured, six dead.

“On purpose?” I asked, after we both watched the clip in silence, aware of how pathetic I sounded. I was hoping that I had misunderstood him and that it was less horrific than it sounded – by playground he meant cemetery, maybe; the car had a drunk driver behind the wheel. He nodded. “Thai people kill Burmese people. Every day. Every day.”  

After listening to Luke’s story I was filled with a fervent hope that I had misunderstood him, or that he was exaggerating his experiences to impress me. Like a body rejecting a foreign pathogen, my brain simply didn’t want to process that something so horrible could have happened to someone who had become a real friend. But dozens of stories like Luke’s have been collected by Human Rights Watch investigators. Myanmar nationals working in Thailand have no protection. According to the bureaucratic systems, many of them don’t even exist. The police – ostensibly there to help people live safely – are their biggest threat. In every industry, from fishing to farming, to providing the labour that allows foreign tourists to enjoy “The Land of Smiles”, they are a powerless underclass in a country that has enough problems of its own.

There are between one-and-a-half and four million migrant workers in Thailand; no one knows exactly how many since most are there illegally. It’s Thailand’s dirty secret that its popular tourist destinations are run on the exploited labour of their poorer cousins, living in oppressive conditions. Next time you’re in Thailand, and your waiter or hotel janitor is marked with golden face paint, greet them in Burmese: “Mingalaba“. They’ll understand you, and like Luke, they’ll have a story to tell.   

Luke is still a working tour guide in Myeik, Kawthaung, and the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar.  He’s not paying us to advertise, but if you need a guide you can add him on Facebook.

Cover by Capturing the human heart.