In the shadow of the lotus: Myanmar’s Chin women look to Macau for jobs

Myanmar’s employment agencies charge high fees to place ethnic minorities in jobs abroad as maids; many work long hours to pay off debts

By Za Bawi Thawng

May 2020

Myanmar domestic workers sleep at an agent’s house in Singapore. (Credit: Jolovan Wham)

The two women hugged, tears in their eyes, not wanting to let go of each other hands.

 “My daughter, may God be with you,” Ngun Cer, who goes by Eng, remembers her mother saying last January on a cool morning in Hakha, the capital of Chin State in western Myanmar. They had travelled to Hakha from their home in the remote village of Phaizawng.

The bus driver called out for the last passengers and Eng boarded the bus. She looked out from the window, lifted up her hand and said one last goodbye to her mother.

Eng — who was 20, had never left her village and never been on a bus — was just beginning a journey she hoped would help her lift her family out of poverty. She was moving to Macau, an autonomous region in south China near Hong Kong, to be a foreign domestic worker.

Eng’s home of Chin State, with a population of 478,801,  is the poorest of all Myanmar’s 14 states and regions. More than 58% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Many Chin women, like Eng, find jobs overseas so they can send money back home.

On the bus, a man who looked like a pastor sat next to Eng and asked her where she was going.

“Yangon,” Eng said. It would take her nearly a day’s journey to get there.

 “You look miserable,” she remembers him saying. Then he asked who was picking her up at the station.

 “My agent,” Eng said in a hushed voice.

In Myanmar, there are 360 registered employment agencies listed on the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population’s website, which includes their license numbers and issue and expiry dates. Only 88 of them are local agencies.

These employment agencies put Myanmar women in jobs as maids in foreign countries, mostly Singapore and Macau, charging fees up to half a year’s salary. If the job doesn’t work out, the women are forced to pay off large debts, often forcing the women’s families to cover costs. Once in the job, these women are subject to abuse, including excessive working hours, the taking of their passports and not being allowed to leave their employer’s house.

Many of the women who use these agencies know little about them, are unable to provide concrete information and are unsure if they are legal. 

Eng said she met her agent with help from a fellow villager working in Singapore. “My villager sent me her agent’s contact number. I called the agent and she told me that she would charge intermediary fees from my first four months’ wages, which would include all my transportation from Hakha to Macau.  I agreed to that, the same as every worker in Chin,” said Eng.

When the bus stopped at Mandalay that night, the man next to Eng got off. He gave her 5,000 Kyats (HK$27) for a meal when she got to Yangon and his phone number in case she needed help.  

Macau, whose flag features the symbol of a lotus, employs around 3,000 Myanmar workers, according to the Myanmar Consulate in Hong Kong.

There are currently 3,000 workers from Myanmar in Macau, said Daw Thi Thi Shwe, the spokesperson for the Myanmar Consulate in Hong Kong, adding that legal workers hold what is locally called a blue card. Most of them are women.

Hniangte — who goes by Mi and is from Kalaymyo in the Sagaing Region bordering Chin State — worked as a maid in Singapore for two years. After returning to Myanmar, she decided to try her luck as a domestic helper in Macau. In March of 2019,  she connected with an agent in Yangon who sent her 200,000 Kyats (HK$1,090) for transportation to the capital, she said.

Mi, who was 25, took a taxi from the Yangon bus terminal to the agent’s house. The flat was on the fifth floor of an apartment house in the North Oakkapala township in the east of the city. She knocked on the door and a woman answered.  They just looked at each other for a moment.

“The agent is not here,” Mi recalled the woman saying.

The apartment was dim. The woman told her the power was out. In one small room, 12 women were lying on the floor holding mobile phones in the darkness.

 “As they heard the sound of the door open, they all looked at me. But, no one spoke,” said Mi. She later found out they were all waiting to work as maids, some in Singapore, others in China.

Finally, the agent returned. She was a massive woman wearing wearing gold earrings, necklaces, rings and bangles, Mi remembered. The agent went over the terms of her contract: the agent would take the first four months of all wages in Macau. After that, her monthly salary would be 4,500 MOP (HK$4,369). A household was already waiting for her, Mi said.

Mi’s salary in Macau is more than four times the average worker’s salary in Chin State, which ranges from 50,000 Kyats to 200,000 Kyats (HK$ 817 to HK$1,090). This amount is even less for villagers who move to cities for jobs and have to pay rent and utilities.

“When they pay everything, there is nothing left from their salary. That’s why many Chin have chosen to work abroad,” Salai Van Biak Thang, the Director of Peace, Democratization and Development at Chin Human Rights Organization, said.

The next day, Mi left for Macau.  As of May, she is still there.

Eng landed in Macau in early 2019 and went to an agent’s house to wait. A Chinese woman with curly hair, who appeared to be about 60 years old, arrived. She and the agent spoke in Chinese for a while, which Eng could not understand. They checked Eng’s travel documents. They nodded. The agent moved closer to Eng and said in Burmese that she needed to follow the woman home.

“After three days, if there is no complaint from their end, we will draw up the contract,” Eng recalled the agent saying.

Her new employer spoke to Eng in English, but Eng could not understand.

When they arrived at her future employer’s house, they rode the elevator to an apartment on the seventh floor. It was the first time Eng had ever been in an elevator. The woman showed Eng around the house, pointing out the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen, which was full of electric appliances Eng did not know how to use.  She met the woman’s young son and daughter. The husband was not there but she saw him in a family picture.

The next morning, Eng headed to the kitchen, but didn’t know what to do.  She waited until the woman woke up and then called her agent to translate. She didn’t know how to turn on the stove.   

A spokesperson with the Chin Women Organization Hakha, a volunteer community organization, said, “We mostly work with women at the most basic level, the household. We teach them how to use gas stoves and electric appliances for the kitchen because in Chin state most people use firewood to cook.”

In 2015, Myanmar banned women from working as maids in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Macau, citing abuse, though around 50,000 women defied the ban and went anyway, according to the Myanmar Times.  In April last year, the ban was lifted.

A woman going to work as a foreign maid should enter the country with a work visa already in her passport. However, many agencies circumvent this requirement by arranging for a woman to enter on a tourist visa. Once there, a potential employer is able to apply for legal employment for the woman. This is illegal, said Salai Van Biak Thang.

Zingku — who goes by Fibi and is a 27-year-old mother of two girls from Chun Cung, a remote village in Chin State — moved to Singapore to be a maid in 2018, when the ban was still in place.

 “In Singapore, the agent will take our first six months’ salary, and when we make sign the agreement with the house owner, a minimum two years is required,” Fibi said.

Fibi said her employer in Singapore forced her to work 16 hours per day and refused to allow her to leave the house. 

“I lost touch with my daughters when I finished my work at 11 pm. They were asleep already. My mother at home used to send me their pictures, and she informed me that whenever they came back from the school, they would mournfully call out my name,” said Fibi.

Fibi said her health suffered, and she would shake whenever she saw her employer. One morning, she fainted in the toilet. When she woke up, she was in the hospital with an oxygen mask. That afternoon, she was put in an ambulance. She didn’t know where it was going. It took her to her agent’s house and two men carried her inside. There were eight women there but she couldn’t understand them. She stayed in the house for three days and was sent back to Myanmar, she said.

“One thing I will never forget in my life was that I came back to Yangon barefoot,” said Fibi. “When I fainted at the house in Singapore, the woman forgot to send my slippers to the agent’s house, although she sent my other stuff.”

When Fibi returned to Yangon in August 2019, she was picked up at the airport by an unknown man who took her to her agent’s house. The man took her passport. She was told she owed the agent 200,000 Kyats (HK$ 1,079) for transportation.

 “If you don’t pay me, I will not let you go out from my house and I will not return your passport,” Fibi remembered the agent saying.

Fibi said she called her mother who collected money from their neighbours to pay her debt.  Too ashamed to go home, Fibi found another agent who got her work in Macau.

 “My father passed away in 2010. My husband left us after I gave birth to our second daughter. After our divorce, he went to Malaysia and has another marriage. I don’t have siblings; I am the only daughter. I need to look after my mother and my two daughters. Ironically, I always want to see my small daughters, but I can’t go back, I will be in Macau until my daughters have finished their school,” Fibi said.

In Macau, after four days of work, Eng got a call.

“We have some good news for you,” Eng recalled the agent saying. “Your employer wants to draw up a contract with you, so we will process a blue card for you tomorrow.”

Eng felt relief. She had been told she would have to return to Myanmar and pay back all the transportation fees if she wasn’t hired.

Myanmar passport holders intending to enter the region as tourists need to apply for a visitor’s visa. Bawi Cung Lian, pastor of the Chin Christ Fellowship Macau church with more than 200 members, said, “All the (Myanmar) workers come to Macau with a visitor visa… If they can’t find a job, then the worker might need to go back after their visa expires.”

The next morning, Eng prepared breakfast for the family. They ate at the table and Eng took her breakfast in the kitchen.

“The kitchen is the place where I have my meals, breakfast, lunch, and supper. On the first day in this house when I talked with my agent, she told me that I had to eat separately from them,” Eng said.

After breakfast, Eng followed her employer to the car, they picked up the agent and went to the immigration offices.   “You just need to follow us and do whatever I tell you to do inside the building,” Eng remembered the agent saying.

 “I remember that I signed some papers, the office took my fingerprints, that was all we did in the office and then we left,” Eng said.

Four months later, the agent gave Eng a blue card, which meant she was a legal worker, and a bank account.

During the four months, Eng said she wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Though Macau labor law entitles all workers to one day off a week, Eng said she is now allowed to leave the house only two Sundays a month. Any more than that, and her employer would deduct 200 MOP (HK$194) from her salary a day.

Eng said she was so excited to tell her mother she would be able to send home money for her brother’s education. She called a friend in Hakka to pass on the message as her village has only two telephones. “Every day, there are many people who use those phones and sometimes we need line-up just to make a local call,” she said.  

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Maecenas porttitor congue massa. Fusce posuere, magna sed pulvinar ultricies, purus lectus malesuada libero, sit amet commodo magna eros quis urna.

Nunc viverra imperdiet enim. Fusce est. Vivamus a tellus.

Pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas. Proin pharetra nonummy pede. Mauris et orci.

Aenean nec lorem. In porttitor. Donec laoreet nonummy augue.

Suspendisse dui purus, scelerisque at, vulputate vitae, pretium mattis, nunc. Mauris eget neque at sem venenatis eleifend. Ut nonummy.

Last July, Eng was invited to church by a Chin woman she met at her agent’s house. As they walked towards the church, Eng could hear singing in the Chin language. As they got closer, Eng recognized the song, which she used to sing in church in her village. She was overwhelmed with joy.

Inside, more than 200 people, mostly women, sat on the carpeted floor. At the front, three men played guitar. A bible sat on the table in front of them.

More than 85% of Chin are Christian and attend church regularly, said Bawi Hoe, a senior pastor at the Salem Baptist Church in Chin State.

A newcomer, Eng was asked to come to the front and introduce herself. Shyly, Eng took the mic, told them her name and where she was from. Then she started sobbing.

“That day, when I saw my fellow people, I was so happy that I could control myself and I was overcome with sorrow,” Eng said.

The service lasted over an hour, people lingering afterwards for refreshments. Eng heard people greeting each other, talking about what they were going to do; some said they would hang out at a restaurant, other were going hiking.  Some came up to Eng to greet her and share their Facebook account.

Now, whenever Eng is allowed to leave the house, she attends church and spends time with her new friends. “It is not easy when evening comes and it’s time to say goodbye to each other,” said Eng.

Eng is more comfortable in her job now. She knows how to use the electric stove, how to cook food her employer’s family likes and how to go the market. If she faces any difficulty, she calls friends to ask them what to do. At night, after everyone is asleep, she can finally go to bed. She sets her alarm for 7 am, reads the bible and then prays.

“Life in Macau means depending upon the employer. If you get a good employer, they will treat you well, and if you get a bad employer your life in Macau will be hard,” said Eng.

If you get a good employer, they will treat you well, and if you get a bad employer your life in Macau will be hard.

Members of the Chin Christian Fellowship church in Macau attend services on Sundays. (Credit; Bawi Cung Lian)