Teerachai Sanjaroenkijthaworn and Wichai Juntavaro
Crossing Bang Sue canal from behind Or Tor Kor market (Marketing Organization for Farmers) by a small tug boat carrying around 5-6 people at a time with three-baht fare found Wat Pai Tan community which could be called a multiracial community comprised of Thai; Burmese; Mon and Karen, but the most migrant workers living in this community seem to be Tavoyans. More than 200 persons temporarily settle here, many of them spend more than half of their life in this place.
This time, Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) and the Mekong Butterfly teamed up to visit our Tavoyan migrant worker friends from Myanmar asking about their lives and how do they live, including how will they deal with this kind of situation in their future path.
We had an opportunity to chat again with Pip or Min Latt, 33-year-old Tavoyan man, with whom we have coordinated earlier to be the community’s main contributor managing the donations: fresh and dry foods as well as other essentials for supporting and helping people in Wat Pai Tan community: Tavoyan; Thai; Burmese; Mon and Karen. After the COVID-19 preventive measures were announced nationwide since the end of March, many families faced with temporary unemployment, some of them were immediately laid off and were consequently short of money to live and to create their future when they return to their homeland.
A communal central kitchen was set up after the arrival of fresh foods, Tavoyan merchants and local people alternately helped with cooking and distributed them thoroughly within the community regardless of race in order to more or less lighten the load as well as reduce the impact of lacking income during this period. The key meal of this round is ‘Mo Lat Toh’, famous Tavoyan rice noodle, whoever trying has to ask for several more bowls.
Amidst the ruined buildings next to Wat Pai Tan, we sat and talked with Pip about his identity in many dimensions: life; family; thoughts; dreams including the history of Tavoyan community here that grew up in parallel with the expansion of Or Tor Kor market. Many of Tavoyans were employed in this market, they were therefore parts of this market’s history on Kamphaengphet road.
What did you do when you first came to Thailand?
Pip: I firstly worked at a dyeing factory in Omyai for about a year, then moved to Bangkok and went back to Dawei in 2009.
What did you do in Dawei, for how long?
Pip: I went back to university for 3 years and got my Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, I like it. I came back to Thailand right after that.
Why do you like it? How will you use it in future?
Pip: Actually, what we studied was linked to our high school’s scores. For example, if we got more than 90 scores, we can apply for the faculty of medicine. Then if we do not like it, we can change only to the lower-scored faculty, not the higher. I moved back to Bangkok right after the test. At first, I thought of working in Dawei, but I could not bear the debts and expenses. My two younger sisters were also in school, so I thought it would be better to work in Thailand and send the money back because of the better wage rate. The salary in Dawei is low, absolutely not enough for the expenses.
Then I came back to Omyai for about 6 months, after that I moved to work at Or Tor Kor as suggested by a friend. I was interested and decided to stay here. That friend of mine has moved back to Dawei for 4-5 years now. It has been in total 11 years that I stay here.
What are you doing now?
Pip: I am now working in a restaurant. I had worked in a bag shop before, selling backpacks for about 8 months. But there was a problem, then I quit and moved to another shop selling incense sticks and candles. It was a very hard work and I got sick many days as my body could not bear it, the employer then fired me. Later, I moved to Or Tor Kor market, working there for a year and moved to Jatujak Plaza. I had a friend there, it was a bamboo/rattan lantern shop. I had worked there for about 2 years, then a stucco/pot shop lacked of labor and asked me to help, so I moved to that shop which still located near Jatujak Plaza. I spent approximately 2 years there, the shop was finally closed down due to losses. I then moved to work in a furniture shop for 2 years, but moved out by reason of back pain. After that, I spent approximately 6-7 years working in a restaurant at Or Tor Kor market taking care of many things. I do whatever my boss want me to do like deliver and buy things. Nowadays, I take care of many things, including our customers in case that I am free. I also help in the kitchen with whatever they want. I sometimes do serving foods; buying ingredients; driving a motorcycle or a truck to buy stuffs.
Like a manager?
Pip: Many things, I do everything.
How much do you get paid now?
Pip: 17,500 baht, but reduced to 15,000 at the beginning of the year since the business was quite slow. But when COVID-19 came, I got only 3,000 baht and today there is no salary at all.
What kind of skill do you have to learn before working? And what are useful skills do you gain from working?
Pip: When I first came to Bangkok, I was unable to speak Thai at all. I then tried to watch movie and learn by myself, but it did not work that well. I learned more from working, vocabularies for example, when I worked at the bag shop, I knew the words about bag and when I worked at the lamp shop, I knew the words about lamp. By changing my workplace, I learned more and more vocabularies. I also intentionally took a Thai class since I planned to stay here for a long time, learning Thai is essential.
How much did you pay for a course?
Pip: The tuition fee is very cheap, about 100 baht/class for the 1st level. They teach both Thai and English for 2 hours every Monday. Each level takes approximately 3 months, there are 5 levels then it takes about a year and a half.
Have you ever planned to return home? And what kind of skills from here do you think you could apply there?
Pip: Yes, I have and I am thinking about what I should do. From my experiences, I think I could open a coffee shop. If I go back to Dawei, I will start with a coffee shop then gradually enhance.
How do you live now?
Pip: I have been renting a room together with my girlfriend for 2 years now, she is also Tavoyan. Last 26 April was our 2-year-wedding anniversary, we met at a coffee shop in Or Tor Kor market many years ago around 2013. We had been dating for 5 years, then got married here in Thailand. She is about 4 years younger than me, she had just finished high school when I graduated from university. She previously worked elsewhere, we have never met.
How much does renting cost?
Pip: It costs 3,000 baht per month. The room is not very spacious with shared bathrooms. It is crowded around here and quite difficult to find a room. Before living with my girlfriend, I shared a room with my friend. We paid approximately 2,000 baht, water and electricity bills included.
How have you been affected when the government took the COVID-19 preventive measures?
Pip: Firstly, I did not get paid and what important is the rental, so it is quite tough. Buying foods is also really hard without money… We spend almost 10,000 baht per month (2 persons together). Foods are expensive too: a meal costs at least 60 baht per person, around 120 baht for 2 persons. More than 200 baht for 2 meals or approximately 7,000 baht a month. There are also water and electricity bills, it is about 10,000 baht in total. If there are other stuffs like shampoo or toothpaste, the cost will be added.
How much savings do you have now?
Pip: Together we have about 10,000 baht of savings, averagely 6,000-7,000 baht per person.
How do you manage this sum?
Pip: I monthly send at least 5,000-6,000 baht to my family in Dawei.
So, is your family also affected during COVID-19 situation as you do not have any income?
Pip: I need to find some, borrow from friends and send to my family. If not, they will have no money to use, we are lucky that my sister is a government official and still has some incomes. But my girlfriend’s mother does not have any, so we have to send it from here. Some months, however, we did not send any money since we would probably need it.
How did you feel when the wage got reduced? And have you negotiated anything?
Pip: When my boss said that he will only 3,000 baht a month, I was sad because it is barely not enough for the rent and we also have to pay for many other things. I cannot do anything but accept. I have been working with him for a long time, we always help each other. More importantly, the restaurant does not make much money, so I feel compassionate.
Any other negotiations?
Pip: No, not at all, I think I can talk but I do not want to. It would be better to let him realize and feel sympathetic to pay by himself. I prefer it this way and if not, it is fine.
Does your bass have any plans now?
Pip: He said he would open a new restaurant and let me take care of it. But we did not talk about the salary yet, it needs to be clearly discussed otherwise I am not okay as I have debts and several other expenses.
If there is no jobs recently, how long do you think you could moderately endure, like how many months?
Pip: 3-4 months maximum, longer than this would be a lot tougher.
Do you have any savings at the moment?
Pip: No, because I have to pay my pickup installments that I still have to pay about 100,000 baht. Now I returned it for a while since I cannot afford the payment. My salary is for paying debts; rental; personal expenses and sending to my family, I then have no savings. Fortunately, my girlfriend still has a job, so she can help me out.
Have you planned how to deal with the situation within the next few months?
Pip: I am now worrying and struggling because the situation is the same in other stores. They cannot sell their stuffs and if they hire us, they have additional expenses. So, no one could recently hire us, but I think I will go back working at home at the end of this year.
Because of COVID-19?
Pip: No, I have been thinking since last year.
Do you think about it lately?
Pip: I am not going back immediately as I have to firstly keep fighting, then follow my initial plan of going back home. If I am ready, I will start it right away. If not, I will stay here for one more year, but I will probably go and see whether things are ready to kick off. If so, I will immediately get started.
Where do the investment funds come from?
Pip: I will use the money that I have been sending to my family as rotating savings, they are kept as emergency fund.
Your girlfriend will go back too?
Pip: Probably not immediately, I will firstly explore Dawei and try doing it. If things go well, she will later join me taking care of the coffee shop. But if we go back home together and it does not progress well, we will lack the income from here which is our main revenue for now.
And if it is not successful, will you again return to Thailand?
Pip: If the coffee shop is unsuccessful, I will do other things there since I intended to return home.
How has Wat Pai Tan community become this huge Tavoyan community?
Pip: 15-16 years ago, there were only 2-3 Tavoyans here. At that time, Or Tor Kor market was not this big but when it was expanded with many more merchants, there was therefore a high demand for labor. When those Tavoyans living here saw such demand, they invited their friends through word of mouth. There were then more than 100 Tavoyans within 4-5 years after the market expansion and around 200 of them now.
Have you ever invited your friend to work here?
Pip: Yes, a couple of them. But actually there were people from southern of Dawei, in Thayetchaung who also came to this area and invited their neighbors to work here too.
I cannot imagine how you can initially find a job here?
Pip: My mom came to Thailand when she was 8 years old finding a job here. She was very poor at that time and decided to come to Kanchanaburi. It has been many years since then, now she is 54. Actually, a lot of Tavoyans came to live in Thailand 50 years ago, not in Bangkok but Kanchanaburi and Ranong, firstly close to the border then gradually moved in.
How do Tavoyans live here as a community?
Pip: There are approximately 200 Tavoyans in Wat Pai Tan community living like brothers, always helping each other. If someone needs help, we go and help him. When there is a merit-making ceremony, we put our efforts in helping each other. And when the monks come from Dawei or Yangon to Wat Pai Tan, we also work together in welcoming them. In the past, we did not organize the event in the temple, but in an apartment with large area where we could do a prayer event. But when there are more people, we have to expand the event space. We then sometimes move to the pier and to Or Tor Kor market, but the market does not allow us recently. So, we ask Thai people living around the pier to ask for permission from Wat Pai Tan in order to use its pavilion area. The abbot is also really kind, he lets us do it and we just donate for the temple maintenance.
Thai people at the pier are so kind as well, they always help us when the officers came checking our card or passport. They always keep telling and asking if we have a card as well as telling the officer that we legally live here with a card, then the officer rarely bothers us.
Can you tell us about the community merit fund?
Pip: This fund started with a merit-making event as it cost a lot: for making merit; for the pavilion and banquet, so we set up a central fund for people to offer some money or donate. When there is a community or merit-making event, we can use this money. Before the establishment of this fund, we used the method of making merit by type, for example, this person pays for foods; this one pays for the temple pavilion and another one pays for water. The more we keep doing this, the less money for making merit we have. So, we set up the fund and collectively manage it by dividing responsibilities. When there is a monk comes from Dawei to Wat Pai Tan, we will then be able to use the money from this fund. The fund uses a monthly saving method of approximately 100 baht per person or 100 baht a time. It is not compulsory for everyone, we have around 50 members. The funding is not only for making merit, but also the members in case of emergency such as the funeral for those living here as well as their cousins or when someone is admitted to the hospital, we use this money to help them.
Is there a lot of savings in the fund now?
Pip: About 5,000 baht…but we did not collect money during COVID-19 because everybody is similarly in trouble, so it is now paused.
Apart from you, does anyone think about going back to Dawei? Are they returning after COVID-19 when the border is reopen?
Pip: Many people would like to return, but going back at this moment or after the border is open they must be quarantined for almost a month by the authorities that is not different from staying here. Besides, if we return home without money, our family will also be in trouble. Returning at this moment is useless, many stores in Chatuchak market are now reopen after the government’s permission.
In case of returning home, it also affects the document?
Pip: Yes, in some aspects. We are not done with the passport yet, we did it once but could not renew our work permit in time because of COVID-19. If we go back to Dawei being quarantined and could not come back to Thailand for renewing our passport, otherwise the passport will completely unusable. But I believe that the situation might return to normal within a few months as the infection numbers are decreasing. I think it is getting better and back to normal, the patients are gradually recovering and the stores are slowly reopen.
After COVID-19, if the economic situation is not improving and takes longer time, are you concerned of earning money?
Pip: I will keep looking for a job, getting a small one first. It will be good to get one, I will work there. I have to keep trying in the meantime.
It means that it is still easy to find a job in Thailand?
Pip: There were a lot of people going back home meaning that jobs are still available.
It means that you are not attached to your former employer. If there is a new job, you are ready to go?
Pip: Yes. If the former boss is not okay, I am ready to find a new one. Actually, I do understand him, his business does not run well. I accept what he can offer, but if he reduces my wage after the reopening, I probably find a new job.
After COVID-19, do you think we need to adjust our life?
Pip: Now, I use the money that I earned and do not have any savings. After COVID-19, I may have to keep more money with myself, so I could use it in case of an emergency because I normally send almost all of it to my family.
How many months do you think you should keep the savings with you?
Pip: I did not think about it yet as my girlfriend can normally work and gain the same salary, so she can help. But for other families, it is very tough. In some families, husband and wife are both jobless.