Thai students work with migrants to combat discrimination

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 05, 2015 8:21 AM

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Thai student Pornthep Pornsiricherd was a child, his family had a housemaid from Myanmar whom they treated as one of the family.

She ate meals with them, went to the market with them, and spent all her time with them.

It did not occur to Pornthep until a four-month stint volunteering with the Network of Migrant Domestic Workers that she likely would have enjoyed a day off now and then, away from his family.

"We have to recognize that they (domestic workers) might not want to be with us all the time, they might want their freedom, they might want to take their own holidays," the 19-year-old said at an event marking the completion of his volunteer work as a "youth ambassador".

Twenty Thai university students had teamed up with organizations supporting migrants as part of an International Labour Organization (ILO) program to promote greater understanding about migrant workers and their contribution to Thailand's economy and society.

Thailand, a country of about 67 million people, hosts an estimated 3 million migrant workers from the Southeast Asian region - 80 percent of them from Myanmar.

Migrants form the backbone of some sectors - such as construction, fishing, agriculture and domestic work - yet are treated as second class citizens, working for less pay and longer hours with no days off, and suffering discrimination, abuse, arrest and extortion.

Khanittha Yimlamai, a 21-year-old student at Thaksin University in southern Songkhla province, described her shock at seeing the working conditions faced by migrant fishermen.

"I saw migrants with sores from such difficult labor... Some of them were only 15 or 16 years old," she said.

"Before, I used to think why do we have to help them? They came here to work. But when I saw these conditions, I realized that someone had to help them."

Many Thais see migrants as low-skilled, violent, uneducated criminals who come to steal jobs from Thai people, said Wipattra Totemchokchaikarn, a 23-year-old medical student at Mahidol University who volunteered with the Raks Thai Foundation in Samut Prakan, south of Bangkok.

"I don't think people should judge each other on nationalities. We are humans together," said Wipattra, who conducted health checks and spoke to migrants about issues ranging from baby development to HIV.

Some volunteers felt it could be hard to change attitudes towards migrants in a country where ancient national rivalries and territorial disputes still raise hackles.

"They don't treat people well because they still view them as enemies," said Tananart Sakolvittayanon, 22, a graduate from Thammasat University.

"We need to learn real history, not just history that they burned our city... This is the 21st century."

(Reporting by Alisa Tang, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)