LGBT+ people are often at risk of human rights violations and gender-based violences due to their sexual orientation and gender identities. With multiple marginalisation, LGBT+ migrant workers often find it extremely difficult to survive in destination countries due to their identities and status as migrant workers, facing mistreatments and exploitations at their workplaces and in the host society.
Informed by the interviews with Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, most common Southeast Asian destination countries for migrant workers from Myanmar, this article discusses gender-based violence and human rights abuse against Myanmar migrant workers who identify themselves as sexual or gender minorities. This is the second part of the article series which elaborates specific vulnerabilities of Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers. The names appearing in this article are pseudonyms.
Gender-based violences and Human Rights Abuse at Work and in Host Society
All nine Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers who were interviewed for this article series agreed that they feel they do not receive equal opportunities in their workplaces when compared to non-LGBT+ identified workers. For example, they are not allowed to stay either in male or female dormitories provided by the employers and instead had to stay in external accommodations paid for by themselves. In addition, they do not feel their monthly earnings are enough to compensate for their working hours. Some even shared that they do not feel their working environment is safe due to the conservertive communities in their neighbourhoods, high presence of threatening law enforcement officers, and frequent night shifts. Among LGBT+ migrant workers, transgender migrants expressed their specific suffering from acts of violence and discrimination that are motivated by their physical expressions, sexual orientation, and life styles.
Tin Tin is a transgender woman migrant worker, and currently working as a housemaid in Chiangmai, Thailand. She explains the discriminatory treatment she received from her previous employer.
“I have worked in different workplaces in Thailand during the past 18 years and the main human rights abuses have always been done by my employers. Due to my status of being an undocumented migrant worker and a transgender woman, almost all previous employers, except my current boss, bullied me including physical assaults. On one occasion, my restaurant owner (employer) did not assign me to work as a waitress due to the way I dress and my gender identity, but instead made me work as a cleaner from 5 am to 11 pm. In addition, the employer did not allow me to stay in a proper room like other workers who are staying in male or female dorms. So I had to sleep on the floor in the restaurant every night for 3 years because I could not afford to pay for external dorms.”
She also added that not only the employers but also her colleagues have been discriminating against her based on the way she dresses, her gender identity, and sexual orientation, as well as her nationality as “Myanmar”. She said that one time in the restaurant, while she was cleaning the kitchen, a group of Thai colleagues tried to rape her but the owner managed to stop them on time. She cried that the multiple marginalisation of being an undocumented migrant worker from Myanmar and a transgender woman makes her more vulnerable and an easier target for exploitation. She says that even among LGBT+ community, being a transgender feels more at risk and discriminated against in every society.
Pan Nu is another transgender migrant worker from Myanmar, currently working as a construction worker in Phuket, Thailand. She has been working in Thailand for 10 years since 2012, smuggled in a cuttle truck. She said that Myanmar transgender migrant workers are humiliated in public by the Thai people, her employers, colleagues, and even police officers.
“Thai police are always waiting for opportunities to exploit transgender migrant workers, especially those from Myanmar. When they see one transgender, they look for problems and ask for the money, and I have experienced this kind (of treatment) three times and had to give Thai police some money not to get arrested even though I have committed no crime. It is also true that since I had no legal documents for work permit and passport back then, the police even threatened to take more money from me. One of my transgender friends, who has a beautiful body and a pretty face, had to sleep with Thai police for a night when she encountered the same experience. So, I dared not go out alone, especially at night, since they always regard transgender people as prostitutes and then arrest us.”
Besides these issues, she also said that she had experienced discrimination at a hospital because nurses and doctors did not want to touch her for their fear of getting infected by HIV/AIDS, and only gave her some prescriptions every time she went to the hospital. She explained that this happened clearly because of her gender identity as a transgender person and being a Myanmar migrant worker. However, according to her, it was more degrading and humiliating experience to survive as an irregular Myanmar transgender migrant worker in Thailand before the National League for Democracy winning a landslide majority seats in Mynamar’s national parliament in 2015. She thinks the situations are seemingly getting better as the Thai communities become more torelant although there are still some risks for transgender people.
Thiha is a gay migrant worker from Myanmar currently working as a junior Engineer at a construction site in Singapore.
“I have been working here at the construction site for 4 years, but I tell no one about my true gender identity because they are too judgemental and not open-minded. When I first arrived at the site through the help of an agency, I noticed that one transgender woman from Laos who had migrated into Singapore irregularly was being sexually exploited in secret by her manager. I saw it when I went to the toilet during the night which terrified me a lot. There are also other LGBT+ migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand working here and they are verbally and physically abused everyday and looked down on by other male colleagues. I am quite scared of revealing my sexual orientation here”,
(photo provided by an interviewee)
He adds that his working hours are more than 10 hours a day, and sometimes he does not get paid for the overtime hours he works. He observes that Singapore is not a terrible place for LGBT+ migrant workers despite LGBT+ people still experience discrimination. However, he also says that Myanmar people are usually degraded and underrated in Singapore and the status of being a migrant worker and LGBT+ individual adds more challenges for survival.
Nevertheless, Tin Tin, Pan Nu, and Thiha agree that discriminations and exploitations against Myanmar migrant workers decreased after labour migration was legalised and the migration process of workers began to be more systematically facilitated by the democratic government led by the National League of Democracy which was formed following the 2015 General Elections in Myanmar. The three Myanmar LGBT+ Myanmar migrant workers observe that employers are less likely to discriminate against them based on their sexual orientation today, compared with before 2015.
They also felt that Thai society also has become more open and many Thai people are likely to become more tolerant towards LGBT+ communities and more respectful towards Myanmar migrant workers regardless of gender identities. However, they all respond that they are feeling terrified and fearful of receiving mistreatments and discriminations like the old times before 2015, as Myanmar currently is again under the military regime following the coup in February 2021. They are concerned that the situation for Myanmar migrant workers might return to pre-2015, when the military government did not legally recognise nor facilitate Myanmar migrant workers.
Improving Representation as the Key for Better Protection
Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers’ sufferings from human rights abuse should not be neglected. The international community, including the Myanmar government, need to work out better ways to ensure safe working environments and accessible communication channels for them to obtain information for better human rights protections. As described by the interviewees, the lives of Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers seem to have been gradually improving. However, many forms of human rights violations against Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers continue to happen and it is crucial that their experiences be given more attention.
As Covid-19 impacted every corner of the world and the mobility restrictions and economic effects of the pandemic brought many Myanmar migrant workers difficulties that include redundancy, salary cuts, increased working hours without compensation, and difficulties with sending remittances. Many vulnerabilities of LGBT+ migrant workers have worsened in various aspects. It is important that all stakeholders ensure that the human rights of LGBT+ migrant workers are protected and fulfilled, and that gender-based violence towards LGBT+ migrant workers are prevented.
In addition to the pandemic, Myanmar has been facing a political crisis with the military taking over the governance of the country for over one year. This situation also contributes to little attention to issues faced by migrant workers. The lack of attention towards migrant workers increases the risk of human rights violation faced by them while many are concerned that their situations could go back to that of before the democratic election in 2015, when the protection of Myanmar migrant workers abroad were ignored by the dictatorship. The regime even forced many people from minority groups, including ethnic minorities and LGBT+ people, to migrate to other countries for safety and better opportunities. If the power remains in the hands of the junta after the coup in 2021, the lives of Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers could continue or even be more vulnerable again.
This article calls for all stakeholders, including the international community, to prevent human rights violations and abuses against LGBT+ migrant workers and to pay more attention to gender-based violence against them regardless of where they are from. ASEAN member states including Myanmar should increase its capacity to work and monitor closely with all involved stakeholders in the labour migration process to ensure a safe and adequate working environment for any migrant workers, as clearly stated in ASEAN Consensus on the Protection of Migrant Workers. Under-represented LGBT+ migrant workers should always be represented and included in the efforts of migrant rights advocacy, and their specific suffering should be given more attention. By focusing on the gender-based violence and human rights abuses against LGBT+ migrant workers from Myanmar, this article highlights the intersectional marginalisation of LGBT+ migrants all across Southeast Asia and beyond.
This article is part 2 of 3. Read part 1.
Myoh Minn Oo
Myoh Minn Oo is an independent writer and researcher with a passion for social and political work in Myanmar and ASEAN. He is actively involved in social and political movements both locally and internationally for a democratic and just society. He conducts research and publishes articles while remaining actively engaged in local and international organisations in areas of democracy, federalism, human rights and social matters.
Other Publications by Myoh Minn Oo:
“Calling for International Attention to Mon State” (Change Magazine)