Workers return to Myanmar: can microfinance help?

Often we meet families that have had to separate in order for one or both parents to find better paid work in an urban centre. Megali Nanayakkara recently spent time with such a family in Myanmar…

Just a few days after Thailand announced new labour laws in June 2016, over 60,000 people who’d been working illegally, returned to their homes in Myanmar. With massive fines of up to 800,000 baht ($23,557) to be imposed on those employing illegal workers, the numbers returning are said to be rising.

The Myanmar embassy in Bangkok is reported to have claimed that there are about four million Myanmar migrants in Thailand, with only 1.7 million having work permits.

Stories of panic and fleeing being shared in the news reminds me of a family I visited recently in a rural village in Hpa-an, south Myanmar.

A farming family living peaceful lives; growing sugarcane, seasonal crops and rearing farm animals.

Daw Thaung Nay (46 years) laughs fondly as she feeds a squawking litter of piglets falling over each other to reach her. “They are always hungry,” she says. She also has cows, goats and chickens to feed.

When the sugarcane growing on their two acres of land are harvested, her husband U Hla Win sells them at a wholesale market in town. Two of their four children are married, and the youngest is still in school. But their lives haven’t always been this peaceful.

Eleven years ago, they had no proper house, produced a few crops and ran a trishaw business transporting clients in the community. It was the losing battle with poverty that drove them to seek work in Bangkok.

At that time, U Hla Win and his wife paid 300,000 kyat ($218) each to be secretly transported by car into Thailand. In the bordering areas where security was high, they had to travel through the forest at night by foot.

When they made it to Bangkok, they tried their hand at various jobs including working at a woodwork factory. Some jobs were more difficult than others but they often meant more money.

Their children (aged 13, 11, five and two years at the time) were left back home in Myanmar with their grandparents. Various challenges led the children to quit school and one by one, the three eldest were transported in hiding to Bangkok where they started working at early ages to support the family. Their third child was just 13 years old when she was married.

Working without a permit meant more than having to keep a low-profile. It meant that it was difficult to access basic services; Daw Thaung Nay recalls the many times she’d been distressed because she was unable to take the children to hospital when they were sick.

In 2012, the Thai government introduced a nationality verification (NV) process in an effort to legalise migrant workers. U Hla Win and his wife applied, and received a temporary passport and visa that allowed them to work legally for a couple of years.

Three years ago, having saved up some money, they returned to Myanmar to start over.

They began to build a house on some inherited land and started small-scale farming. Although they had the land they did not have the means to cultivate all of it, but that changed when they heard about the availability of micro loans to support agricultural activities.

A VisionFund branch supported by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT) was operating in their village, and they obtained a loan of 300,000 kyats ($218) with which meant that they could buy the fertiliser and seeds they needed to expand cultivation to the full two-acres of land they owned.

Since repaying the first loan, they’ve taken three more – to purchase pigs, goats and cows, as well as to support their farming work.

“We are happy to be back home, working for ourselves on our own terms, “says Daw Thaung Nay. “We were able to improve our living conditions and earn profit from our farming because of the low rates of interest.” They had at one time borrowed money from relatives for double the interest rate that they now pay.

Although they were not able to support the education of three of their children, they can now be there for their youngest to finish school.

As many more families and young people return to Myanmar, a wealth of opportunity awaits. As in the case of Daw Thaung Nay, all they may need is a little support to build thriving businesses and be a part of Myanmar’s burgeoning economy.

 

VisionFund operates 42 branches across Myanmar, 10 of which are supported by The Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT) through World Vision. LIFT is managed by UNOPS and has been working in partnership with VisionFund Myanmar to increase access to affordable and sustainable financial services in four upland states of Myanmar.

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