20 Nov 2021
By: Trisha Ann Gabrielle Albay

In search of a better life, 16-year-old Zarni left her home in rural Myanmar and crossed the military-guarded border to Thailand, following the steps of many other migrants in her village. Zarni felt relieved as she thought she had passed the only hurdle blocking her way to a better life. Little did she know that there was more to come.

Zarni’s new life started in a factory in Bangkok that operated illegally out of a townhouse. She and her colleagues were prohibited from ever leaving the premises to avoid drawing suspicion. However, a police raid left her frightened and uncertain about her future in Thailand – “I thought I had to go back to Myanmar after only three months here. I was crying”. However, her employer persuaded her to stay until her cousin referred her to a new job as a domestic worker for a family in Bangkok. As a live-in domestic worker, her hours were long and her responsibilities vast, but for her, anything was better than the factory. The improved working conditions made Zarni hopeful that her dreams of providing for her family were within arm’s reach. Adjusting to her new family was hard at first as Zarni did not speak Thai, but little by little, she learned.

“Everything was new and complicated. Sometimes, I missed home and wanted to go back. But I met a friend – my neighbour who also came from Myanmar.” Introduced by a fellow Myanmar domestic worker, in 2015 she joined HomeNet, an NGO supporting more than 5,000 home-based workers across Thailand through policy advocacy, skills training, peer-to-peer networking and legal counselling. Not only did she find a sense of belonging but also empowerment. HomeNet provided her with training on first aid and Thai language, informed her about labour rights, and connected her with other domestic workers.

Over 20 years have passed since Zarni crossed the border on foot into an unknown future. Now 37 years old, Zarni still works as a domestic worker in Thailand. Although she did not have the chance to go back to school as she had hoped before migrating, Zarni continues to pursue knowledge in other ways. Aside from improving her vocational skills through trainings provided by HomeNet, she now earns a better monthly salary. In addition, she is fluent both in Thai and in English after working with employers of different nationalities.

With support from HomeNet, including through workshops and peer-to-peer networking supported by the PROMISE programme, Zarni has gained a better understanding of her rights and responsibilities.  She was able to negotiate a better contract with her employer, especially on sick leave and annual leave. Meanwhile, she became an active voice that advocates for the formalisation of domestic work in Thailand, so that migrant domestic workers in the future can gain access to better social protection.

Thinking about how unscrupulous brokers and employers could easily take advantage of and exploit migrant workers, Zarni carries on as a migrant leader who connects other migrant domestic workers with HomeNet and helps educate them on safe migration and labour rights.

“In Myanmar, we were taught that when we plant something, we do not hope to eat the fruits ourselves. Instead, we hope that future generations can harvest and enjoy them,” she said.

PROMISE is implemented by IOM and UN Women, with generous support from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC). Since 2017, PROMISE has been supporting domestic migrant workers in partnership with HomeNet. Through skills development, enhancing worker employability, and by promoting migrant protection, PROMISE helps migrant workers achieve better lives, contributing to poverty reduction and greater economic resilience for themselves and their families.