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Dying to work

By Melody Kemp - posted Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Australian’s rallied in support of the failed Burmese peoples’ uprising in 2007. Footage of dignified, serious faced, burgundy clad monks taking to the streets in a peaceful protest against the increasingly untenable living conditions in Burma captured the world’s imagination and sympathy. People were increasingly angered as the images changed to those of the ruling junta beating and arresting hundreds of protesters, monks included.

Central to the protest were the images captured by brave students, activist and monks. Tourists caught in the melee shot their footage to wire services, from where it was propelled at light speed to global TVs. We all held our breath at that point. Sighing and crying as the inevitable happened.

There was little that was dignifying about the deaths of 54 Burmese migrant workers inside a refrigerated truck last week, and the horrifying images of rows of young dead, some only eight-years-old, were not sent around the world.


I had accidentally found the initial report in the Seattle Times and sent it to my friends in the exiled Seafarers Union of Burma (SUB) and a watchdog NGO who advocate for Burmese migrant workers. The SUB immediately rushed out and took photos. They are grisly and depressingly modern.

One shows the insides of the truck still littered with the detritus of the lives that had been suffocated inside. One can only imagine what it must have been like as the air grew fetid and hot, then heavy with sweat and dead in oxygen. How the workers must have looked on in horror as one after the other, the impossibly young men and women in jeans and T-shirts fell, slumped against each other dying.

Another shows men heaving a lifeless pale body off the truck. One man is smiling, perhaps at a snickered joke or in embarrassment of being caught with the dead.

Others simply show the lines of bodies, laid out like fish at a market. As disturbing are those of the distressed survivors, behind bars, weeping and looking dazed, the cries of their friends still in their ears.

Of the dead, 37 were female (including one eight-year-old girl) and 17 were male (including one boy). An additional 67 workers, 14 of them under 18-years-old and one pregnant woman, survived the incident. The 14 child survivors were separated from the adult survivors and have been kept in immigration detention in Ranong. All 53 adult survivors were sentenced by a local court for illegal entry and to a 2,000 baht (US$63) fine. In Australia they would have perhaps been counselled, or given medical attention. But the next bit would be familiar to refugee advocates.

As all but four of the adult survivors were unable to pay the fine, they were sentenced to imprisonment for 10 days. Now these 10 days have passed, the adult survivors, alongside the child survivors, are being kept in an immigration jail and have limited access to lawyers and other non-governmental assistance.


While this was an extreme case, the NGO group reported that at least 100 other Burmese migrant workers die each year trying to get to Thailand or anywhere where they can find work. They were at the time of this event trying to secure compensation for a legally registered Burmese woman migrant horribly injured on a Shangri La hotel site in Chiang Mai. A 300kg moulding fell from the 12th floor when the sling broke, and parts fell on her as she worked below.

April 28 is now set aside as a day when we remember the victims of occupational accidents and injuries. International Workers Memorial Day is gathering more and more victims to remember. More die each year in workplaces than in the conflicts that plague their nations. They die quietly and with no fanfare in the globalised factories of the world, most without compensation or health care.

Those that do not die at home leave the world as migrant workers, among strangers, often in violent or degrading conditions. I have met Indonesian women branded with hot irons in retribution for some sleight or because of jealousy.

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About the Author

Melody Kemp is a freelance writer in Asia who worked in labour and development for many years and is a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in South-East Asia. You can contact Melody by email at

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