Ten Years a Slave: The Story of Freedom From Slavery
Hla Thidar Myint and her sister’s journey to Thailand was the start of an ordeal that would see Hla held as a slave.
When 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 Hla held as a slave.
After paying the broker $600 to get them over the border, Aye and 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.Aye Than Dar
It was February 2004, and Aye heard nothing from her sister until she found her more than nine years later.
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.Aye Than Dar
Hla would start work at 4 a.m., mop the floor and clean her employer’s stationery shop. After that she cleaned the house.
“He let me go to sleep at 8 p.m., but I would stay up watching soap operas,” Hla, 32, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview with the sisters at a McDonald’s in Bangkok.
Thailand hosts around 3 million migrant workers, 80 percent 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 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.”
Tracking Hla Down
Aye had no idea what had happened to her sister. Five or six years after they had gone to Thailand, came the first clue: Hla’s boss sent pictures of her to the family’s home in Myanmar.
“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 Aye contact a man who was well connected in the community. He recognised Hla from her photo, and said he had seen her somewhere before.
Six months later he contacted Aye to say he had found her. In June 2013, Aye went to the house and rang the doorbell. Hla’s boss asked for proof she was their housemaid’s sister, including her passport and visa. Aye also showed them a photograph of Hla as a child. Eventually, he let her in.
When she came out, I was so happy, I cried. 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.Aye Than Dar
‘This Time I Don’t Want to Go Back’
Despite having paid her nothing for nine years, Hla’s Thai boss was convinced he had treated her well. Unlike many domestic workers, Hla had suffered no physical abuse.
“He brought out a gold necklace, and said he would give her 200,000 baht ($6,500).” He handed over her passport, saying he hoped she would return to continue working for him.
Aye took her home to Myanmar, finding Hla in physically bad shape, and unable to make simple decisions, like choose her clothes.
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.Aye Than Dar
There was no work at home. Aye suggested a new job in Thailand, but remarkably, 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.Aye Than Dar
So Aye took her sister back, giving her a phone, and demanding a monthly salary of 7,000 baht ($195) and one day off per week.
On November 3, 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.
This time, I don’t want to go back. My boss doesn’t like my sister, so I think I just want to go home and work at home for my parents.Hla Thidar Myint
Issues of trafficking and modern day slavery, like that experienced by Hla, will be discussed on Wednesday at the Trust Women conference on women’s rights and trafficking, run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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