The tiny drinks stall Chit Htet had been running for the past few years in Rangoon was doing so poorly that when the 35-year-old’s sister-in-law promised her a job in Burma’s southern province, Chit Htet did not think twice.
However, she had been duped. After taking food and drink offered to her by the sister-in-law, Chit Htet fell asleep — and woke up to discover she had been smuggled into Thailand, where, her sister-in-law said, she would now be working to “pay off her job-placement debts” in a pineapple factory.
“I was given 300 baht [US$10] every 15 days as salary, but had to pay for my own water, electricity and rent, which meant that I could only afford to eat one egg a day — half at breakfast and half at dinner,” Chit Htet says.
Working in the factory with thousands of others — at least 1,000 of whom she estimated to be Burmese nationals like herself, and many of whom she says had been trafficked by her own sister-in-law — Chit Htet plotted her escape. Guards patrolled the compound and workers were only allowed out in escorted minivans to the local market, but one day she found a Thai colleague’s mobile lying around and made the call to police that freed her.
Burma has been fighting trafficking within its borders for the past eight years — it signed the 2004 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and in 2007 established an anti-trafficking taskforce — with more than 1,700 victims rescued to date. However, rights groups say it still lacks the teeth to prosecute and prevent cases from reoccurring — meaning that repeat offenders like Chit Htet’s sister-in-law often walk free.
However in a landmark agreement between the Burmese government and the Australian anti-trafficking non-governmental organization Walk Free this month, the Burmese government committed to working with local businesses to eradicate all trafficking within its private sector. This would mean that in Burma’s nascent economy, businesses would be required to identify, eradicate and prevent forced labor in their operations and supply chains — preventing situations like Chit Htet’s from occurring on Burmese soil.
“This chance to work with Walk Free is a great opportunity to persuade the domestic private sector to work with us on this initiative and, together, I am sure we will end human trafficking in Myanmar,” Police Brigadier General Khin Maung Si said.
Although slavery is illegal in every country in the world, the International Labour Organization estimates that nearly 21 million people around the world can be considered modern-day slaves — defined as those working under threat of violence, abuse and harsh penalties — in a market generating roughly US$32 billion profit every year. More than half of those people are in Asia, and more than a quarter are women and children.
Burmese women are trafficked out of the country every year — the majority of whom are sold into forced marriages, prostitution or forced labor. According to the Burmese government’s most recent plan of action, about 80 percent of Burma’s trafficking victims end up in China, with the rest primarily going to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Burma’s female workforce has been migrating for decades now, says Ma Mar of the Burmese charity FATE (Fight Against Trafficking and Exploitation of Women), seeking greater economic opportunities abroad to send money back home.