Domestic worker from Myanmar rescues sister from a decade of slavery

Aye Than Dar (right) touches the head of her sister Hla Thidar Myint at a park in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov 14, 2015.
Aye Than Dar (right) touches the head of her sister Hla Thidar Myint at a park in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov 14, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Ms Aye Than Dar and her little sister Hla Thidar Myint paid a broker in Myanmar's Mon state to smuggle them to Thailand for domestic work, it was the start of a decade-long ordeal that would see the pair separated and Ms Hla held as a slave.

After paying the broker US$600 (S$855) to get them over the border, Ms Aye and Ms Hla were sent to work in separate homes in Ban Pong, in Thailand's Ratchaburi province, west of Bangkok.

"When we arrived in Thailand, an agent came to pick us up. We got jobs in two different places in Ratchaburi, but we didn't know where each of us was sent, so we couldn't contact each other," Ms Aye said.

It was February 2004, and Ms Aye heard nothing from her sister until she found her more than nine years later.

Ms Hla, who is intellectually disabled, had been barred contact with her family and denied a salary. "She was completely unable to go outside by herself. She could only go with her boss. She never knew what her salary was. When she wanted something, she had to ask her boss," said Ms Aye, now 34, sighing in frustration.

Ms Hla would start work at 4am, mop the floor and clean her employer's stationery shop. After that she cleaned the house. "He let me go to sleep at 8pm, but I would stay up watching soap operas," Ms Hla, 32, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview with the sisters at a McDonald's in Bangkok.

Thailand hosts around three million migrant workers, 80 per cent of them from next-door Myanmar. They take jobs in construction, agriculture, the seafood industry and domestic work.

While many migrants work in what campaigners call "3D" jobs that are dirty, dangerous and demeaning, domestic workers can suffer the most abuse because they work behind closed doors, in isolation, hidden from public view.

Many employers, like Ms Hla's, think they are being generous by taking in poor young women and having them do household chores - often not seen as real work - in exchange for room and board.

They say they treat their maids "like family".

"I want to vomit when I hear this. It's too often that employers say things like this. Will you treat your sister or your mum like this?" said Ms Elizabeth Tang, the general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation.

"This is a huge perception problem: employers like this think they are actually doing charity because this worker came from Myanmar, she didn't speak the language. She was alone, she just arrived. She had no job, so taking her into the house and giving her food and a place to sleep was a big charity."

Ms Aye had no idea what had happened to her sister. Five or six years after they had gone to Thailand, came the first clue: Ms Hla's boss sent pictures of her to the family's home in Myanmar.

"I realised she was alive, still in Ban Pong," said Ms Aye, who is now a domestic worker in Bangkok and a member of Network of Migrant Domestic Workers which supports Myanmar women. "Why didn't she try to reach us? Why couldn't we contact her?"

At the end of 2012, Ms Aye made a push to find her sister, whom she refers to by her Thai nickname, Rak. She had just scraps of information to go by. "When Rak's photo was sent to us, it included her migrant identification number, along with the name of the broker in Thailand," she explained.

A Ban Pong district officer suggested Ms Aye contact a man who was well connected in the community. He recognised Ms Hla from her photo, and said he had seen her somewhere before.

Six months later he contacted Ms Aye to say he had found her. In June 2013, Ms Aye went to the house and rang the doorbell. Ms Hla's boss asked for proof she was their housemaid's sister, including her passport and visa. Ms Aye also showed them a photograph of Ms Hla as a child. Eventually, he let her in.

"When she came out, I was so happy, I cried," Aye recalled. "But she was emotionless. I asked her, 'Why didn't you go home?' She said she didn't know how to go home. The employer told me to pick her up in a week, but I took her that day."

Despite having paid her nothing for nine years, Ms Hla's Thai boss was convinced he had treated her well. Unlike many domestic workers, Ms Hla had suffered no physical abuse.

"He said, 'I've been taking care of your sister as if she were my own daughter or niece. I didn't give her a monthly salary. She's a good person. I've been saving her money for her. She wouldn't have known how to save it. I also bought her some gold.'

"He brought out a gold necklace, and said he would give her 200,000 baht (S$7,900)."

He handed over her passport, saying he hoped she would return to continue working for him.

Ms Aye took her home to Myanmar, finding Ms Hla in physically bad shape, and unable to make simple decisions, like choose her clothes. "When I found her, she had very bad breath, it was hard to even talk to her face to face, and I had to take her to the dentist. She had to have a tooth pulled and some fillings.

"She didn't know how to go home, so I took her all the way there. I stayed only one day because I had to go back to work. She stayed for four months."

There was no work at home. Ms Aye suggested a new job in Thailand, but remarkably, Ms Hla, who had become accustomed to her life, and didn't see herself as a slave, wanted to go back to her old employer.

"She said that she understood how things worked at her boss's house and wasn't comfortable working in a new place. Her brain couldn't handle it," said Aye.

So Ms Aye took her sister back, giving her a phone, and demanding a monthly salary of 7,000 baht (S$277) and one day off per week.

"We settled on 6,000 baht. She worked every day,"said Ms Aye. "Her employer says that since I got involved with my sister, she has changed. She is no longer obedient and likes to talk back."

On Nov 3, Ms Aye went to the house again, to take her sister away, this time for good. They will return home in December to see their father who is about to have eye surgery, and their youngest sister who is graduating from university.

At McDonald's, the two sisters, dressed in fitted jeans, pretty blouses and chunky-soled flip flops, seemed to blend in with other women in Bangkok.

Only their accents gave them away as Burmese, and the worn, peeling skin on MS Hla's fingers hinted at the years of hard work.

"This time, I don't want to go back," Ms Hla said, looking to her sister for reassurance. "My boss doesn't like my sister, so I think I just want to go home and work at home for my parents."

Issues of trafficking and modern day slavery, like that experienced by Ms Hla, will be discussed on Wednesday at the Trust Women conference on women's rights and trafficking, run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.