In Thailand, seven women said NO! to gold mining contamination and intimidation … and won!

Wiron Rujichaiwat, Lamplern Ruangrit, Mon Khunna, Pornthip Hongchai, Ranong Kongsaen, Bunraeng Srithong and Suphat Khunna

Yesterday, in Thailand, a court ruled that seven rural women activists – Wiron Rujichaiwat, Lamplern Ruangrit, Mon Khunna, Pornthip Hongchai, Ranong Kongsaen, Bunraeng Srithong and Suphat Khunna – are innocent of accusations of having organized an illegal assembly and of having coerced individuals to act against their will. Those charges stemmed from a meeting in November 2016, but the story goes back much further and radiates far beyond the Loei Province, in northern Thailand. It’s another story of local women, in this case local rural women organizing, organizing, organizing, no matter the odds, no matter the enormity of the opposition … organizing, organizing, organizing … and winning!

The Tongkah Harbour Public Company Limited has been around since 1906. In 1907, the company started offshore tin mining. Today, the company is involved in all sorts of mineral mining and in real estate. In 1991, the Tongkah Harbour Public Company founded Tungkum Limited, with the express purpose of mining gold in Loei Province, in northeastern Thailand. Loei Province is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Thailand, an area described as idyllic. In 2003, the Thai Ministry of Industry gave Tungkum the green light, and mining began.

What followed was an altogether familiar tale of mining and environmental contamination and devastation. What had been a hard life became an impossible life and then death-in-life, another instance of necropolitical economic development. Thanks to leaks from the mines, rarely controlled, rarely admitted to by the company, rarely investigated by the State, local water and soil started showing high levels of arsenic, manganese, chromium, cyanide, mercury and cadmium. None of this was unexpected. These are by-products of gold mining and, if improperly contained, they will poison the surrounding communities of people and the environments in which they dwell.

Local communities formed Khon Rak Ban Kerd, People Love their Hometown, KRBK. From the beginning, Wiron Rujichaiwat, Lamplern Ruangrit, Mon Khunna, Pornthip Hongchai, Ranong Kongsaen, Bunraeng Srithong, Suphat Khunna, Mae Rot and other women have been the central driving force for the organizing effort. They have withstood armed attacks, lawsuits, public defamation, and all forms of available intimidation. They have responded with rallies, blockades, petitions, and organizing. In November 2016, Wiron Rujichaiwat, Lamplern Ruangrit, Mon Khunna, Pornthip Hongchai, Ranong Kongsaen, Bunraeng Srithong, Suphat Khunna were invited to a meeting to discuss their views. When they arrived, with their friends, they were accused of blocking access to the meeting place and of unlawful assembly. This week, the court decided that, instead, the seven women had “innocently expressed their opinions, which is within their basic rights under the system of democracy.”

Their lawyer, Teerapun Phankeeree, said the women “are likely to continue to oppose the mining operations … The community not only wanted the company to stop operating, they wanted the company and government agencies to restore the environment, as well.” One of the activists, Pornthip Hongchai, explained, “There is still contamination within our six villages surrounding the mine. No officials or any department have come to seriously fix or address the problem yet. Villagers know that the water is contaminated and we have to be careful and look after ourselves. We still have to buy water to drink and cook with. We’ve been buying water since 2009 when there was a public health announcement.” As Mae Rot explained, “We have nowhere else to go. This is our land and we have been here for a hundred years. We have a right to live peacefully. We can’t eat the food we grow, we can’t drink the water. All we can do is keep fighting for justice. We pray to our ancestors in the mountains for help. Recently the miners drilled but found nothing. Maybe our ancestors are listening.” Maybe the ancestors are listening, and maybe the world as well. In Thailand, seven rural women said NO! to gold mining contamination and intimidation, said NO! to some of the most powerful men and organizations in the world, said YES to democracy … and won!

 

(Photo Credit: The Nation) (Video Credit: YouTube / CIEE Khon Kaen)

Thailand bus fire kills 20 migrant workers from Myanmar. 18 were women. Who cares?

Early Friday morning, March 30, in Tak Province, a bus carrying workers from Myanmar to a factory district caught fire. The bus was carrying 48 workers, plus the driver and his wife. 20 workers were killed, 18 women, 2 men. Once again, despite the overwhelming gender composition of this event, the international press described the dead as simply “migrant workers” and then proceeded to focus on Thailand’s hazardous roads and the shoddy condition of the bus. Thailand has dangerous roads, but this incident was a rolling factory fire. As in Tangerang, Indonesia;  Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, United States; Kader Toy Factory, Thailand; Zhili Handicraft Factory, China; Tazreen Fashions Factory, Bangladesh; Kentex Manufacturing Corporation; Philippines; House Technologies Industries, Philippines; Bawana Industrial Area, India, and so many others, this bus fire was a planned massacre of women workers. And, as so often in these cases, the news media generally glosses over the massacre as an assault on women.

What happened? A bus carrying 48 women workers, a bus driver and his wife, was on route  from Myanmar to the Nava Nakorn Industrial Zone, near Bangkok. The bus was without air conditioning. Around 1:40, a fire broke out in the middle of the bus and spread quickly. Those in the front managed to escape. Those in the back were burnt to death.

Pa Pa Hlaing, a 19-year-old woman worker survivor, said, “When we were asleep, some people from the back of the bus started shouting and screaming ‘fire, fire’ and as we awoke, the smoke was already filling the bus. We couldn’t see anything or breathe. We just tried to get out of the bus as soon as possible. We were just rushing toward the bus door. I don’t even remember how I actually got out of that bus. There were bruises all over my legs as I was just randomly running around. Then, three minutes right after we got out of the bus, the flames just swallowed the bus.”

According to reports, the workers, from Myanmar, were all properly registered migrant workers. According to the Thai Labor Ministry, Thailand has about 2.7 million registered migrant workers, primarily from Myanmar and Cambodia. Women migrant workers figure prominently in the industrial and agricultural sector as well as among domestic workers. There is no surprise when, of 20 people killed in a factory fire, 18 are women. There is no surprise that the bus was in such bad shape it would have to be described as equipped to kill at least 20 people in the event of a fire or other catastrophe. There is no surprise here, none of this is new. It’s all part of the development model the entire world has signed on to. Apparently, the women workers in this particular bus were heading to work in a Japanese-owned toy factory.

At what point do women matter to the world at large? At what point do the world media begin to consider the high numbers of women killed in the disasters built into our built landscapes, from the garbage dumps of Maputo, Mozambique, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to the earthquake struck buildings of Mexico City, Mexico, to the factories across the globe? This past week, a bus in Thailand caught fire. 20 migrant workers from Myanmar were killed. 18 were women. Who cares?

 

(Photo Credit: Bangkok Post)

Emebet Mono Bezabh, another warrior in women’s struggles for emancipation and power

 

Emebet Mono Bezabh

Emebet Mono Bezabh

Emebet Mono Bezabh worked for two years as a live-in maid working for the head of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) in Thailand. According to her reports, the diplomat and his wife regularly beat and starved her. They made her sleep with the family dog, and they treated her as “less than an animal”, which is to say they treated her like a slave. On Monday, an out-of-court settlement between Emebet Mono Bezabh and her `employers’ was reached.

Emebet Mono Bezabh was brought to Thailand from Ethiopia. Her employers are Ethiopian. Emebet Mono Bezabh is twenty-five years old. She was orphaned at the age of five. She has little to no formal education, and is deemed illiterate, but she knows something about justice: “This money doesn’t make up for what they’ve done to me.”

A year ago, today, we wrote about Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong who was beaten and starved almost to death. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, “My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

Emebet Mono Bezabh’s case was finally exposed through the unity of the women’s movements in Thailand, where she was supported by the Foundation for Women, Human Rights and Development Foundation and the Lawyers Council of Thailand. That was the story last year, it’s the story this year, and it most likely will be the story next year, same time: the solidarity of women workers breaking through the chains of domestic hyper-exploitation, violence, oppression, and slavery.

There is no room to be surprised, yet again, by the violence of domestic workers’ employers. It’s time to recognize the histories of struggle by domestic workers, in unions and associations, in courts and on the streets. Women workers’ ongoing and historic struggle for emancipation and power is the story. Pass it on.

 

(Photo Credit: Bangkok Post)

The tragic and the everyday of the garment industry

 


On May 10, 1993, 188 workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Kader Toy Factory, in Bangkok, Thailand. 177 of the killed workers were women. The factory had no fire alarms, no sprinklers, very few fire extinguishers, and practically no means of escape. Those not immediately burned to death jumped out of third and fourth story windows … and were killed or seriously injured.

On November 19, 1993, 87 workers, all women, died, or were killed, in a fire at the Zhili Handicraft Factory, in Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone. A month later, on December 13, 61 women workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Gaofu Textile Factory, in Fuzhou.

On Sunday, November 25, 2012, Bangladesh suffered its worst-ever factory fire, at the Tazreen Fashions factory, one of 4500 garment factories in the country. At last count, 123 workers died. By all accounts, the workers were all or almost all women.

Nothing here is new. Industries rely on women’s `nimble fingers’ to produce goods. Factories filled with women are overcrowded, have no fire alarms or sprinklers, and have no means of escape. Many women are burned to death. In these more recent versions, as in the earlier Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the factories are the signature of the modern. They are proof positive of progress made, or so the public is told.

Until the fire next time.

And each time, the fire, the tragedy, `enlightens’ a public that was previously innocent of any knowledge of the circumstances of industrial women workers. Fortunately for the innocent public, the dead cannot speak, cannot contradict the protestations of surprise and the performances of dismay.

But the living can.

At almost the same time the Tazreen factory burst into flames, garment workers, women workers, gathered in Bengaluru, in India, to give testimony to their working lives and to make demands. Managers abuse the women verbally and physically. The production targets are impossible. The pay is bare. The list goes on. What do the women want? They want what every worker wants. They want dignity, they want a living wage, they want the right to organize. They want everything that constitutes dignity, they want everything that expands dignity.

The women know they are working in a factory that is all women workers because a factory full of women is a factory of low wages. They are told this is a sign of development, of modernity. The women know better.

As we enter into the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, mourn the women workers who have died in the fires and support the women workers who continue to organize and make demands, as they produce clothing, toys, microchips, textiles, and more. Don’t let the brilliance of the fire obscure the urgencies of women workers’ everyday struggles for dignity and a living wage.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian)