All Because of the Middlemen

Junya Lek Yimprasert's message is clear: The insufferable and evil exploitation of migrant workers must come to an end.

Junya Lek Yimprasert speaks very fast. Her words tumble over one another and her accent sometimes makes her words unintelligible, but her message is clear: The insufferable and evil exploitation of migrant workers must come to an end.

Yimprasert believes that the motivating factor in the global trade in humans, since the days when Africans were sold into slavery in America to the movement of migrant workers around the world today, is the money collected by the middlemen. Yimprasert has devoted her life to the struggle against the middlemen operating in Thailand.

The Thai Labour Campaign (TLC), the organization she represents, is pressuring the Thai government to outlaw the activities of migrant worker agencies, which charge thousands of dollars from Thais who wish to work abroad.

Last week, Yimprasert visited Israel as part of a delegation of trade unions invited here by WAC (Workers Advice Center) to examine the condition of the agricultural labor force. WAC's aim was to show the visitors how foreign workers are being exploited and how this affects Israeli Arab agricultural workers, who cannot find work.

Yimprasert said the situation in Israel reminds her of her own country, which has some 2 million migrant workers, mainly from neighboring Myanmar. TLC lobbies against their exploitation and like WAC, tries to contend with the employers' claims that the government has to allow the employment of foreign workers, as they perform jobs that Thais are unwilling to do.

"They are right," says Yimprasert, "Thais are not willing to work for half or one-third the minimum wage."

Most of the foreign workers in Thailand are employed in agriculture and earn $30-$50 a month. The remainder work as household help, in hotels, in fishing and in industry. Only about half of them hold work permits. TLC is also fighting a government ban on the unionization of migrant workers. That struggle seems almost futile, as the trade unions in Thailand are weak, and only 2 percent of all workers belong to unions. TLC is trying to expose foreign and local worker exploitation in the manufacture of well-known fashion brands in order to promote a consumer boycott.

Yimprasert found workers here in Israel, too, who feel they have no choice but to work for less than the legal minimum wage. The Thai workers Yimprasert met on the Israeli farms she toured with WAC told her they receive only NIS 13 per hour, even though the minimum wage is close to NIS 20. Still, Israel is an attractive destination for her countrymen, as wages here are higher than in Thailand and they have work permits.

'The land is their lives'

The Thai workers who come to Israel own small farms in Thailand, but have difficulty earning a living from the rice and vegetables they grow. Only men who own land can obtain permits to work abroad, because the only way to pay the agent who arranges the permit is by mortgaging 50-100 dunams (12.5-25 acres) of land to the agent as security. Most small farms are only 20 dunams, so many migrant workers mortgage their relatives' land, too - an act that puts even greater responsibility on them.

"The land is their lives," says Yimprasert. "The farmers are afraid to lose it, which makes it such a good security. They are willing to work themselves to death to protect their land. This is also why they are so easy to exploit."

The agents promise the Thai farmers that they can earn $45,000-$50,000 dollars in five years here. Of that sum, they must pay $8,000-$12,000 to the agent in order to redeem their land, even though that fee is twice the value of the land, says Yimprasert. Thai workers in Israel usually send NIS 3,000 home per month, so the first year and a half is spent paying the agent and the interest. The money goes through the agent, who deducts most of it for himself and passes on only a small sum to the worker's family.

"There is a lot of dishonesty," laments Yimprasert. "The agencies can take whatever they want. Who's there to stop them?"

TLC lobbies the Thai government to take over the process of sending workers abroad and to shut down the agencies, but the government claims it cannot do so.

"We don't believe that," says Yimprasert. "What do the agencies do? They only help fill out forms. Why are they charging thousands of dollars?"

Yimprasert explains that if a person goes to the Labor Ministry in Bangkok and asks to go abroad to work, he is told that there is a waiting list of thousands. In order to speed up the process, it is worth it for him to go to an agency. Yimprasert says there are even such agency offices right in the Labor Ministry's building in Bangkok.

For years, there have been rumors of family and money ties between the agencies and the government clerks. According to the rumors, a clerk receives 5,000 Baht ($17) for every person he refers to an agent.

"Every year 150,000 Thai workers are sent overseas. Think how much money goes to the clerks," says Yimprasert.

The Thai government denies the rumors and forbids the agents from charging more than 56,000 Baht (about $1,800) from each worker. But Yimprasert explains that the agents provide a receipt for 56,000 Baht and deduct the rest from the monthly payments the workers send to their families. An agency that is caught overcharging is fined $250 and has its license suspended for a month, says Yimprasert. "What is that compared to the massive sums they earn?" asks Yimprasert.

A $25,000 ticket to the U.S.

In recent years, Yimprasert says, some agencies in certain regions of Thailand have been having difficulty recruiting workers because more and more farmers are realizing that they are enslaving themselves for a relatively small sum, if anything.

"At best, they can build a house. Some just buy a plow or television," says Yimprasert. Others even have to go abroad several times to extricate themselves from their debts to the agents.

The sum Thais pay to come to Israel is a fraction of what they must pay if they want to go to the United States - $25,000. "Those countries do not need migrant workers. The agents simply want to squeeze as much as possible out of their victims, the workers," says Yimprasert.

Beyond the financial cost, working abroad exacts a heavy emotional cost, too. The workers Yimprasert met in Israel told of their yearnings for their wives. In the first two years they cannot even go to visit their families, as they must first repay the agency fee.

There is a saying in Thailand: "When you go abroad, you lose your land; when you come back, you lose your wife."