Burmese Migrant Workers in Tsunami Regions Still Face Difficulties

Despite ceremonies this week remembering those killed in last year's tsunami, labor groups say Thai officials have done little to help Burmese migrant workers badly affected by the devastating waves.

When the tsunami hit southern Thailand last year hundreds of Burmese migrants building beach front hotels were among the victims.

Thai officials have identified 80 Burmese migrant workers among the dead. But they believe several of the more than 800 unidentified bodies are likely to be Burmese.

Thousands of Burmese migrant workers are employed along Thailand's Andaman Sea coast - a source of cheap labor for contractors who often overlook the need to register the workers.

Those who survived the December 2004 tsunami often found their jobs, homes and belongings were gone, and that they were unable to get government aid.

Adisorn Kurdmongkol, a Thai labor activist, says the disaster called attention to the problems the Burmese migrants faced even before the tsunami.

"The tsunami helped expose the problem," he said. "The government has asked the wrong question. It's like the government waiting for the migrant workers to ask for assistance. But the reality is the migrant workers cannot access the assistance even before the tsunami."

Many of the Burmese migrants who survived the tsunami lost their documentation to the waves. Labor rights workers say even those who were registered often found the names on the government lists did not match their own.

Somchai Homla-or from the Thai Law Society blames many Thai employers for the problems the migrants have in seeking assistance.

"We have found that there are still so many migrant workers who haven't been registered yet because some employers don't want to pay the money to the government in registration fee and medical fee," he explained.

Labor activists say the government overlooks the contribution Burmese migrants make to the Thai economy.

Activists who have been helping migrants since the tsunami say the tragedy should push the government and business owners to work together to improve conditions for the workers.

On Monday, the anniversary of the tsunami, several Burmese migrants attended a memorial service in the town of Ban Nem Khem, which was nearly destroyed in the disaster. They said they felt neglected but their legal status made it difficult for them to raise issues, so they suffered in silence.