“It is more important than ever that women migrant workers know where to get help.”Interview with Inthava Thonpheng, volunteer at the Lao Federation of Trade Unions Migrant Worker Resource Centre (MRC) in Savannakhet, Lao PDR
The Migrant Worker Resource Centre (MRC) in Savannakhet is supported by the Spotlight Initiative’s Safe and Fair Programme and run by the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU). The MRC is a space where women migrant workers and their families can visit to obtain information, training and counselling on safe migration, and lodge their complaints. Through the MRC, women migrant workers experiencing violence, harassment or trafficking get first emotional support and are referred to specialized services.
Inthiava: Thailand is the main destination of Laotian women migrant workers. They are essential contributors not only to the Thai economy and society, but also to Lao economy through remittances. However, with COVID-19, many of them have lost their jobs and returned home. Many of them have been exposed to violence on the way back home or risk to be exposed upon arrival, since they are easily blamed for the suspended financial support they provided for their families before the pandemic. This situation creates tensions within the households, thus increasing the risk of domestic violence.
My role is to provide information on safe migration as well as to give women migrants the space to ask questions and lodge complaints.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the MRC provided counselling through outreach activities and face to face meetings. But COVID-19 has affected the way we work. I have to work from home, but many of us, including me, do not have adequate facilities at home to support teleworking. I have no laptop at home, and the internet connection in my village is poor. This makes it difficult for me to be in contact with clients who need my support.
Back to the office, as a frontline worker, I face the risk of contracting COVID-19n. The support we receive from the Safe and Fair Programme has enabled me to protect myself from the virus. When I am on a field mission, I wear a mask, wash my hands, and follow social distancing measures. It worries me that women migrant workers have limited access to personal protection equipment (PPE). They came back home, and there are no job opportunities in their communities. Many of them can’t afford PPEs.
Recently, I received a complaint from a Laotian woman who had just returned from Thailand. She is one of many women migrant workers who faced employment challenges and abuse related to COVID-19. She was coerced to working extra hours without being paid, and she was afraid of refusing the extra requests due to fear of violence.
It is crucial that information and services, including those responding to violence, are available during the pandemic. It is more important than ever that women migrant workers know where to get help when their rights are violated or when they face exploitation, abuse and violence. The service directories developed by Safe and Fair are very timely and an important resource to disseminate.
Returning back home to Laos doesn’t mean that challenges for women migrant workers end. Many of them have no specific skills for job opportunities at home. We need to support women migrant worker returnees to be better prepared going forward. This includes vocational training to equip them with relevant skills.
Despite the increasing work hours, working at the MRC has allowed me to understand women migrant workers even better. They face greater challenges and are in need of support despite their positive contribution, and I believe they deserve more respect from all of us. My role is to support them and help them get the services and protection that they deserve. That is what keeps me going every day.
The ILO-UN Women programme “Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region”, under the global EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls, supports front-line service providers to ensure essential services are available for women migrant workers who are subject to violence. More: www.spotlightinitiative.org/safe-and-fair
More contacts of service providers are available in the Service Directory for Women Migrant Workers in the ASEAN region: https://bit.ly/services4wmw
Interviewed by: Viengprasith Thiphasouda
Written by: Pichit Phromkade
Edited by Gihan Hassanein