Closed Borders Make Life Difficult for Kachin State’s Agricultural Workers

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Workers on banana and watermelon plantations in Kachin State are struggling for their daily survival amid borders closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The workers say that they cannot harvest the ripe fruits because farm owners cannot export the produce to China while the border remains closed.

“We cannot do anything under this disaster,” Nang Phyu, who works on a banana farm in Mai Sak Pa village, told NMG. “All transportation is closed. Cars cannot go to the farms. Therefore, fruits have rotted. Our boss has lost a lot. We have lost too.”

She added because of the lack of revenue from the farm, she does not know how she will pay her daughter’s school fees during the coming academic year.

“I don’t know how to solve problem of our daily survival. I used to earn 12,000 kyat (US$8.50) per day,” Mi Mi Aung, a worker on a watermelon farm in Nyaung Shwe village in Mogaung Township, said. “Watermelon harvest time is over, so I cannot go to work on the watermelon farm.”

Mi Mi Aung has now gone to work on a banana plantation as a daily wage laborer.

“When the banana cars come in, we have to carry the bunches of bananas to the cars. The banana bunches are too big for me to carry. So I can earn only 6,000 kyat per day (US$4),” she explained.

There are many banana and watermelon plantations near Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization. Hundreds of workers from Myitkyina, Mogaung, and Mohnyin townships in Kachin State, as well as from Sagaing Region and elsewhere come to work on the plantations.

“I cannot speak Chinese or Kachin language. I only realized that our boss wouldn’t come back when a translator told me, so I didn’t get my salary. I tried to cut banana bunches and sold them myself,” Win Soe, who works as a guard on a banana plantation, told NMG.

Even though border crossings remain closed, authorities from Burma and China allow a few cars pass to exchange goods—around 1-3 per week—and workers load and unload the cars.

“Our situation is that we have to work for a day and take a rest for five days. That’s why we don’t have extra money saved,” Chan Myae Aung, who works as a guard on a watermelon farm and is from Sagaing Region, told NMG. “I will wait and see for another 10 days. If situation doesn’t change, I will return home.”

Lahtaw Lanu, the headman of Namsan Yang village, told NMG that they have collected the names of workers in at the banana and watermelon farms in the area in case they want to go home.

“Many workers have already returned to their native place. Some workers do not return to their village. They have lived here for four to five years. Most of them are Shan or Rakhine ethnic people,” he said. “There were 100 acres of watermelon plantations and more than 1,000 acres of banana plantations in the Nam San Yang area. Now there are a few hundred acres of banana and watermelon farms in the area,” he added.

The plantation heads reportedly signed three-year contracts for their land.

Before the borders shut, each plantation had more than 100 workers. About half are still there, locals estimate.