Thailand is a common destination for large numbers of migrant workers, especially from neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. Among them are many LGBTQ who came to Thailand to escape harassment and prosecution in their own country, but found themselves faced with gender-based discrimination and unsafe work environments in Thailand. No policies have been implemented for their protection.
A neighbourhood in Samut Sakhon where many workers from Myanmar live
Research by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that LGBTQ migrant workers, especially trans women, tend to move from employer to employer because of frequent harassment over their identity. Many also work in unsafe environments and may face violence from their employers, especially in small businesses or in domestic work, which often do not pay well and require them to live in their employers’ houses.
Prachatai speaks to three LGBTQ workers from Myanmar and migrant worker rights experts about the experience of LGBTQ workers in Thailand and the lack of protection for them.
A heaven for LGBTQ people?
“Someone who worked in the factory once touched my breasts and my bottom. I was embarrassed because someone else saw it. I was also angry because why did they have to touch me?” said 32-year-old Joy (pseudonym) who works in Samut Sakhon.
Joy is one of the over 2.5 million workers from Myanmar who have come to Thailand seeking higher pay, as they cannot make enough money in their home country to cover the cost of living. As a trans woman, Joy also came to Thailand believing that it is more accepting of LGBTQ people, but not only did she struggle to find a job, she is also discriminated against for being trans.
Growing up in Dawei, Joy said she knew since she was young that she identified as a woman and presented herself as a woman as much as she could, but she was not accepted by her family and community. Throughout our conversation, Joy called herself a woman and showed us photos.
“When I was living in Myanmar, I had long hair and wore makeup, but I couldn’t dress fully as a woman, because I didn’t want to upset my parents,” Joy said.
Joy said she was bullied when she was living in Myanmar, which she did not like, but she could not tell her parents because she was embarrassed and did not want to cause problems. When she was 18, a man from her village attacked her.
“When I was living in Myanmar, a man that lives in the same village insulted me for being a kathoei. He insulted my parents, and then he pulled my hair and punched my face,” Joy said.
Joy told her parents, who responded: “You were born a man. Why aren’t you a man?” She said that even though her parents knew she didn’t start fights with other people, they did not like who she was, which further drove her desire to move to Thailand.
Joy, a 32-year-old worker from Dawei
However, life in Thailand is not what she hoped it would be. Joy previously worked in a canning factory. She said that while her Thai colleagues were understanding, she was often bullied by other workers from Myanmar and has faced both verbal and physical harassment, of which she did not want to tell her partner because she was concerned that she would be seen as a problem-maker if her partner started fights.
Joy has not had a full-time job for the past 3 years. She has health issues, and looking for a factory job has cost her up to 10,000 baht. She had to leave her apartment and now lives with an acquaintance while earning some money from working in a beauty salon. Her partner works on a fishing boat and often brings her money and fish.
“Before, when I lived in Thailand, and faced problems, I wanted to go home to Myanmar, but right now I really don’t want to go back, because it’s worse at home. The politicians are bad. Even if I wanted to go home, I have to stay here. The money I make has to be sent to my parents,” Joy said.
Joy is not alone in her experience. Nan (pseudonym), another worker from Dawei, said she used to work in a factory where she was bullied. Nevertheless, Nan said things are better, since being trans is not accepted in Myanmar.
“When I worked in a factory, some people bullied me, touching my breasts or my bottom, like they wanted to see if this person has breasts. But it’s a lot better than in Myanmar. Being a kathoei in Myanmar is something that society doesn’t accept at all,” Nan said.
Nan works at beauty salon in Samut Sakhon
Nan now works full-time in a beauty salon in Samut Sakhon – a job she said makes more money than working in a factory and allows her more freedom. She said she started out working in a factory like most workers from Myanmar, but the pay was low and she was bullied for being trans, so she taught herself how to do hair and makeup before leaving her factory job. She says not only does she make more money working in the salon, she is also more comfortable in a workplace where most employees are women.
“My parents didn’t like the way I am, but when I started working and sending money home, they got better,” Nan said. She said she was not expecting to move to Thailand, but she could not find a job in Myanmar and could not be herself, so she decided to move to Thailand with a relative. Nan also said she only stayed at school until Mathayom 2 (Year 8) as she did not enjoy school because society does not accept her identity and she was made to wear a boy’s uniform to school.
“After my father died, I got more freedom. I got top surgery last year in Thailand. If he was still alive, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Nan said.
Lek (right) and his partner
Meanwhile, 42-year-old Lek said he used to work in a factory making a Thai dessert, where most employees were men and this made him question whether he would be safe there.
Lek comes from Hpa-An in Myanmar’s Kayin State and now works at a garment factory in Nakhon Pathom. He said that his parents were conservative and did not want a trans son, so Lek came to Thailand in 1995.
“In my heart, I have been a boy since I was young, but my parents wanted me to be a girl,” Lek said.
When Lek was 13, he heard that there were jobs in Mae Sot, so he told his parents that he did not want to stay in school and that he wanted to work to support himself. However, Lek’s parents were not supportive and preferred that he continue studying. Lek said that his parents were not confident he could take care of himself because he is trans.
“I came on my own. I didn’t say anything to my parents. I just ran away from home,” Lek said. He has had many jobs over the years, including making jewelry, cleaning, and making bua loi dessert, before coming to work at the garment factory, where Lek said he feels most comfortable.
Lek said that when he was working at the dessert factory, he was not paid much and the work environment made him felt unsafe, which was why he later left. He said that the factory was a small family business. Employees would live at the factory, and since almost all the employees were men, there was only one bathroom. When taking a shower, Lek had to take turns with other employees.
“Even if I’m a trans man, my body is still female, so I have to be careful. The longer I stayed there, I didn’t know if I would be safe,” Lek said.
The other employees also teased him. “I’m a trans man, right? Other people know that I don’t like being called ‘sister,’ so they would call me ‘brother,” Lek said. “Some people just look at me and know what they should call me, but some people don’t. It’s not that they don’t know. They were bullying me.”
Photos from Lek's wedding day is placed on a cabinet at his house. He married his partner in Thailand as their relationship would be a crime in Myanmar.
Nevertheless, Lek said that this would not contribute to his decision to leave the job, as long as he could still do his job well and his employer had no issue with him, but he said he might leave if it’s something he doesn’t want to hear.
Lek said that employers are not choosing only cisgender men and women and rejecting LGBTQ applicants, because most employers only care about whether one can work, but in reality, trans men do not want to work on a construction site, where most workers are men and the accommodation is not very safe, so LGBTQ workers tend to have more limited employment options.
“But if there is really no other job, then I have to do it,” Lek said. “I have to eat. I have to live. If I don’t work, then I won’t have money.”
Lek said he wanted to form a network with other trans men workers from Myanmar so they can support each other when needed, but he found that other workers live in fear and did not want to reveal themselves. After spending over 20 years in Thailand, Lek said he still felt unsafe in public. When asked why he felt that way, Lek said he doesn’t know.
A gap in the policy
LGBTQ migrant workers remain unprotected by Thai policies, partially because it is difficult to collect information about their experience. Jaray Singhakowinta, a lecturer at the National Institute of Development Administration’s Graduate School of Social Development and Management Strategy, said that LGBTQ migrant workers are often isolated from each other, while most do not feel safe enough to express themselves, which makes it difficult to conduct research to design policies to protect them.
“Even gathering in public at night, especially for trans people, particularly trans men and trans women, since their gender identity is very visible and because they are non-conformative, makes them likely to become victims of sexual harassment,” Jaray said.
Jaray noted that being homosexual is still a crime in Myanmar, and workers tend to stay in the closet when among others from the same country. He observed that Myanmar and Thailand are similar in that both societies are predominantly Buddhist, where it is believed that being trans or gay is a result of bad karma for committing adultery in a past life. He also observed that ethnic communities tend to be conservative.
However, Jaray noted that Thailand does not criminalise same-sex relationships, while LGBTQ people are often seen in the Thai media. He speculated that these are the reasons why Thai people are more familiar with LGBTQ people than in Myanmar, even though they may not be entirely accepting.
“Our country is quite up-to-date and has been quite open for a long time. LGBTQ people in Thailand are active in the media, even if they’re not everywhere, but in Myanmar, there’s nothing,” Jaray said.
Meanwhile, researcher Patnarin Wongkad said that LGBTQ workers become more accepted by their family once they become financially independent and are able to support their family.
“In many families, their parents were unaccepting at first, but when they come to work and send back money, which is to say that they have more economic power, their parents stop saying that they want them to get married or stop [being LGBTQ],” Patnarin said.
Patnarin also noted that in some sectors, such as in sex work, LGBTQ workers are more comfortable among other members of their community, as they not only have friends but also a support network which helps them access various services that they might have difficulties getting due to lack of information or the language barrier. The workers Patnarin interviewed, most of whom were Shan workers in Chiang Mai and Burman workers in Samut Sakhon, also said that they do not feel safe enough to be themselves and so are often isolated from others.
“It depends on the person’s identity. If they express themselves clearly or if other people know, they might get teased, or their colleagues might gossip about them, especially among people from the same community or country. It happens less with Thai people. It also depends on the type of work,” Patnarin said.
Deepa Bharathi, Chief Technical Advisor from the ILO’s Safe and Fair Programme, also said that LGBTQ workers often feel the need to prove themselves more than cisgender and heterosexual people due to discrimination from their families. Research conducted by ILO found that 72% of LGBTQ migrant workers who participated in the survey said that they chose their destination country based on how much money they might make. The research also found that there is little correlation between a worker’s gender identity and sexuality and the type of work they choose to do, and that while some LGBTQ workers work in the entertainment sector, they also work in other sectors.
Deepa said that most LGBTQ workers who participated in the survey said they earn enough money in their destination country not only for savings but also to support their families in their home countries. Many are also able to save enough money to start a business or buy land for a home.
She noted that LGBTQ workers who visibly express their identities are the most likely to face violence, as well as those who work in entertainment businesses or in closed spaces, such as domestic workers or those working on fishing boats, or those who share living quarters with other workers.
This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.