“I couldn’t let out even a small cough, in fear of people’s suspicions” says Ma Si Hlaing of Hinthada
Myanmar’s migrant workers return home from quarantine, how do they fit in?
16th November 2020, Hinthada, Ayerwaddy
With the coronavirus pandemic raging throughout the globe, Myanmar locks down and braces for the country’s first serious outbreak, with the epicenter in the Yangon region. Even with the utmost efforts of the government, there are insufficient social and economic safety measures to protect and care for the region’s most vulnerable. The slowdown of the world economy has led to businesses shutting down and migrant workers going straight out of work. Neighboring nations closed their borders with Thailand declaring an Emergency Decree in late March to keep COVID-19 under control, leaving many workers stranded with no pay and many others scrambling to return home amid the crisis.
For migrant workers coming out of quarantine at home, the question looms…
In this climate of precarity and uncertainty, many have also encountered rising tensions in their social circles, rising doubts, fear, casting blame and suspicion on those out of quarantine. In search of their voices, a visit to the small city of Hinthada in the Ayerwaddy Region revealed opportunities for hope, blooming among communities of migrant workers out of work.
Tun Yat (which means “tilling” in Burmese), an agri-tech startup that rents agricultural machinery to farmers through an online platform, in collaboration with Paung Sie Facility, an organization that aims to build and strengthen social cohesion in Myanmar, came up with solutions to the questions — “How can we get workers back on their feet?” and at the same time “How can we improve social cohesion of those once quarantined back reemerging into society?”
The solution: to train them. Teach workers the required skills for working within their communities so that they may return to work and return to normalcy. Namely, such ‘skills’ include improved communications to unpack harmful stereotypes and biases. At the same time, motivate and build their confidence through teamwork for social cohesion and engage their passionate personalities through various teaching techniques. With the newly acquired skills, they may better contribute to local economies and communities and even share with others to bring about a significant change in living standards. A series of training and development programs are already in motion: Food Preparation and Safety, Bookkeeping and Finance, and Mechanical Operator training.
Tun Yat, partnering with LuxDev, organized a program focused on food preparation and food safety. In the training, trainees engage in two-way discussions with a professional instructor. Like a class of university students, in the end, each goes before the group forward to share what they have learned.
One of the main objectives that this particular training is centered around is promoting the formation of a women’s enterprise. As a result of their more precarious position in the workplace, women have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 related unemployment. This training hopes to solve the issue by elevating the culinary interests of women, creating a more confident working class of women able to encounter more work opportunities and enter into various workplaces.
The students also shared with us their thoughts on the program and how it has impacted their lives. Ma Si Hlaing Thin, age 37, was recently forced to return home to Hinthada after the textile factory she was working at in Yangon shut down:
“I don’t want to work in the textile industry forever and would like to start my own business, which is why I chose to come here. For now, I can’t picture setting up a restaurant yet, but with what I’m learning, I can work in a restaurant. I just expected that they were going to show how to prepare some meals, but I’ve learned how to prepare high-quality foreign dishes and to work as part of a team. It’s very knowledgeable and high quality. One day when I get my restaurant, I’m sure the lessons I’ve learned here will be of help.”
When asked about whether there were any challenges as a previously quarantined migrant, she had this to say —
“Some people gave me suspicious looks when I returned from Yangon. I couldn’t even let out a small cough, fearing people’s suspicions. But in reality, I was fine. After that, I didn’t go out much because I was scared and didn’t want to upset other people. Here, on the other hand, I feel happy and welcomed here because everyone learns to work cohesively and shares what they know with each other as a team.”
Zaw Myo Htike, age 32, a restaurant worker, who rode an hour by motorbike each day to attend this training, shared his thoughts and experiences –
“I have the ambition to be a good chef who cooks and prepares excellent meals while also having the skills to manage employees and workers, which is why I decided to attend this training. It’s joyful to meet and work cooperatively with the people here, especially because we all come from different regions. Yesterday was memorable. We had to prepare fish and meat. Then the instructor demonstrated how to make a meal of them. I’m learning what I previously did not know, such as that we have to use different chopping boards for each type of food. I’ll have to inform my boss at the restaurant about this for food safety!”
When asked about how he, as a local, feels working with people who recently came out of quarantine, Zaw Myo Htike said, —
“It’s wonderful to meet and work with people from different regions. It is because we know they went through quarantine and are following the safety procedures here that I trust them and am happy to work together as part of a team.”
At the end of each program, ambitious students receive the opportunity to put their skills to work. Tun Yat and its industry partners offer jobs to several of the graduating students who show passion and excel during training. As Myanmar mitigates the challenges of COVID-19, workers must find ways to adapt, learn new skills, and apply them in a changing job market. Understanding this challenge, Tun Yat initiated this training to give workers the skills to thrive in this environment while focusing on communication and team-building skills to strengthen inter-communal relationships and social cohesion.
Nay Ye’ Lin, Content Writer, Tun Yat