Meeting domestic workers over a meal of miang pla tu
FOOD LITERACY WORKSHOP
MAP FOUNDATION AND GAATW | 17 September 2023
On a rainy mid-September morning in Chiang Mai, 20 women migrants from Shan state in Myanmar were gathering outside the MAP Foundation office. Their bright pink, red and maroon clothes were in stark contrast against the grey, cloudy sky. Some had come on their motorbikes, others had taken one or two public buses to reach by 8:30. The women were domestic workers and had come on their day off to attend a Food Literacy workshop organised by MAP and GAATW
By 9 AM, everyone had boarded the songthaews that took us to Mae Rim, a short 30-minute trip from Chiang Mai. It was not a quiet ride. The women were making selfies and videos, chatting about food, work, employers, and partners.
MAP is a Thai NGO that provides assistance to migrant workers in the region and advocates for their human and labour rights. The organising of migrant domestic workers is led by Pim, a migrant worker from Myanmar. After working as a domestic worker for nearly 17 years, and after attending many trainings by MAP, Pim is now part of the organisation’s staff. Her presence helps to create a link between the GAATW team and the workers.
By 10 AM, we reached our destination in Mae Rim: Studio Horjhama. We walked into a mud house and verdant home-cum-workshop space curated and run by Ann-Sasithorn Khamrit. Ann was once a dramatist with the Gabfai Community Theatre group, a GAATW member that uses theatre and art to engage with rural communities. For the last seven years, Ann has shifted her focus to food security and the message that food choices can change the world for the better. She procures products from local producers who practise organic and sustainable farming. She then spreads knowledge about local food preparation styles through different mediums like mobile kitchens, grocery cars, collaborative campaigns, programmes for children and workshops like this one. She was the facilitator for the first session of the day. Her past work, cultural sensitivity and awareness helped in creating a cohesive learning environment.
The mud-house studio reminded many of the women of their own homes in Shan state. Welcomed by Ann and her team, we gathered around a wide wooden table. The cooking menu consisted of miang pla tu (mackerel, vegetables and spices wrapped in rice paper), dried fish soup and dumplings.
Pim explained that this workshop was a way of strengthening women’s knowledge in preparing food, as well as a space for gathering of peers. A recent ILO report argues for skills recognition of domestic workers as a way of improving their working conditions and ability to choose employment. This calls for a shift away from the perception of domestic work as unskilled labour despite the range of skills that women apply in these roles.
For the women in our workshop, their working conditions are heavily controlled by the employers and for many, their documentation and registration are tied to the employers, which means they have very little bargaining power. In the past, they recognised behaviours that were physically abusive or exploitative and quit those jobs for better ones.
“I left the restaurant because of my abusive employer. He was angry and he hit me once. After that, I met a nice woman who gave me work at an orange orchid. She did not pay me but gave me a place to stay and three meals a day”, said one of the domestic workers. She doesn’t work at the orchard anymore.
The room was filled with the aroma of the ingredients. The women took turns to chop, pound, mix, fry and plate dishes. As we concluded the cooking segment of the workshop, the women were thrilled by the flavours, techniques, and how they didn’t have to use MSG, which is perceived as unhealthy or addictive by many. Ann introduced ingredients that can be used as an alternative to MSG for umami flavour like sun-dried fish. She taught us how to maximise the use of ingredients by using all parts of it in different segments of the cooking process and encouraged waste reduction in food preparation. We also learnt about food presentation. While many of the women said they would use these techniques when cooking for their employers, they also said they would use these with their children and parents.
For the second half of the day, we discussed the barriers to sustainability being a self-organised group. This session was translated from English to Thai by a Thai-speaking local translator who was also part of MAP Foundation staff a few years ago. We invited Pim to share her vision for the group as she has been working with domestic workers for several years. She shared that what she meant by sustainability was for the group to become a cooperative and have independent resources to run their activities. In the future, she hopes that the group will be trained to fundraise and be less dependent on others, including NGOs. The social enterprise of making and selling dishwashing liquid was one such example of raising funds. Similar collectivised efforts by the members based on their skills can be upscaled to building a cooperative.
Overtime work is one of the biggest barriers to sustaining the group. The women spent their limited time off for their own chores and family and had very little time for group activities and regular meetings. To understand overtime work better, we did a clock exercise where women mapped their work day on a 24-hour clock. The clock was divided into time spent at work and on themselves and personal chores between the hours of waking up and going to bed. More than half of the women worked up to 16 hours a day. Those who do not live with employers worked multiple jobs, in two or three households every day. Some also worked in massage parlours, food stalls or selling goods.
The women who lived independently worked much longer because they wanted to earn more income. The women who live with employers worked overtime but to a lesser extent. They shared that they were often interrupted during rest or meals or were monitored by their employers. Nearly all of them were penalised when they tried to take leave outside of the mutually negotiated rest days.
It was a good sharing amongst members of the group who learned about the work conditions of other women. The clock exercise was used to self-reflect and to construct a context in which the lived experiences of the group members can be seen as a source of information to empower other members.
Many of the women were single mothers and wanted their children to have access to education. They were proud to be ‘leaders of their family’, who earn and save money, raise children and pay school fees, and support parents, children and save for the future. Some also said they had greater sexual autonomy. This was met with laughter but also with agreement. Often considered indecent or bawdy, the topic of sexual freedom and expression gets very little space for discussion.
When asked about why it is difficult to get more women to join the collective, we received two responses: first, that the women are shy and lack confidence. And second, they think about joining only when they need some help. The group believes that it takes time to build trust and connection reflecting on their own journey with the group.
In Thailand, the access to labour rights by domestic workers depends on the type of employers. If they are directly employed, which was most in this group, they are outside the purview of the Labour Protection Act. This means, among others, no minimum wage, maximum hours of work, and no overtime compensation. However, those who are employed by businesses are covered in full by the labour law. There were very few of them in this group.
The group discussed breach of labour rights and its absence for domestic workers like minimum wage, rest days and difficulty in changing jobs. MAP Foundation focusses on educating workers about their rights through in-person trainings and MAP radio, which discusses the rights of domestic workers every Friday from 12 to 1 PM. Women said they listened to it and were sometimes invited as co-hosts.
Apart from not being paid minimum wage, the workers were also frustrated by their working conditions, wage deductions for taking leave, late payments, and having to depend on their employers for their registration and documentation.
At the end of the day, the workers said they were happy to be part of such a self-organised group because it gave them the support to deal with various situations with employers or documentation as migrant workers in Thailand.
Written by Srishty Anand