In late 2015, IOM X sat down with Thiri*, a Myanmar domestic worker working abroad. Her remarkable story is below.
After her father died in 1992, Thiri left her village in Myanmar’s Kachin state on a meandering journey that would take her through military checkpoints; a hidden forest border crossing and secret late-night truck rides to the capital city of a nearby country. Twenty-three years later, she reflects on a domestic worker career that included three months for a wealthy gem dealer; five years at the house of an underworld gambling magnate; and ten years at the condo of a white-collar professional.
“As a domestic worker, you pass through many people – some treat you well, others treat you badly… Some respect domestic workers as people, others do not,” said Thiri.
After arriving in her destination country penniless, Thiri’s brother who was working as a gardener, introduced her to her first employer – a wealthy gem importer. Just 17 years old, Thiri had no experience negotiating wages or working conditions as a domestic worker.
“I had to sleep under the kitchen table – not a big square one, but a little circular one. And the house was half empty – there were so many empty bedrooms upstairs… The worst was when they had dinner parties – I would have to wait until they were finished, and clean up and go to sleep. Then I was up at 5am washing the car.”
When the family left her alone in the house, they locked the doors from the outside. “I didn’t have a work visa, and they told me that they locked me in for my own safety because the police would catch me. At the time, I believed them, so in a way, they used my inexperience and fear of arrest against me.”
She had no days off, but managed to make friends by speaking to other Myanmar domestic workers through the windows and shut gates of her employer’s house. “We made due – if I needed something from the market, I would get someone to pass it through the gate.”
After three months, she couldn’t bare her working conditions. She worked briefly for a wealthy garment-importer, before finding a job as a maid for an underground casino magnate. As an ethnic Nepalese with who speaks Hindi, her language skills were a bonus for the employer. She laughs when she recalls hearing her employer talking late into the night on his telephone, barking out orders to his subordinates. “That’s how I learned numbers so well – he was always yelling about odds, money and winnings.” Despite the man’s nefarious business, the working conditions were better. “I got to sleep in a room at least; it was with three other people, but it was an improvement. I had holidays too, which allowed me to leave the house.”
With the ability to share experiences with fellow domestic workers, Thiri began to learn that she had more rights that she originally thought, motivating her to leave her job. In 2000, she was hired by a couple for US$250 per month, including holidays and some benefits. In addition to the financial benefits, Thiri said that her employer taught her to value her role as a domestic worker. “She told me – ‘you are making the same money as everyone else, you need to respect yourself and the contribution you are making’. I had never thought of it that way,” said Thiri.
Now 40 years old, and a registered migrant worker, Thiri spends her free time helping other domestic workers – a role that is as much about teaching legal rights as instilling a sense of self-respect. “Domestic workers are often looked down upon – seen as sub-human. It’s easy to exploit someone who doesn’t value themselves, so I teach people to respect themselves and understand that they have rights.”
To learn more about the exploitation of domestic workers, visit IOMX.org/HappyHome
*Name changed to protect identity