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Inclusion and exclusion in global production networks: The case of Myanmar migrant seafood processing workers in Thailand

Inclusion and exclusion in global production networks: The case of Myanmar migrant seafood processing workers in Thailand

Carli Melo
Carli Melo

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of global production networks (GPNs). Throughout the pandemic, GPNs have experienced disruptions as manufacturing facilities have closed and consumers have been placed under lockdown. The impacts of such disruption have led to the reduction in wages and unemployment of millions of factory workers across South and Southeast Asia, many of whom are migrants. In Thailand, migrant workers were amongst the first to lose their jobs as companies sought to cut costs. The widespread employment of migrant workers has further implications because it means that the impacts of such disruption extend not just to the factories in which goods are made, but also to the places of origin from which migrants are drawn, to which they often send their earnings, and to which they will often later return.

Myanmar migrants employed in Thailand’s manufacturing sector are not only contending with the impacts of the pandemic on their work and everyday lives, but also with the effects of political unrest in their country of origin. On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military staged a coup based on the claim that there was electoral fraud during the November 2020 national election. These events, the COVID-19 pandemic and 2021 Myanmar coup, raise questions around how pandemic and political crises intersect with GPNs to create new forms of inclusion and exclusion for migrant labour. It also raises questions around how migrant workers themselves are renegotiating the terms of their engagement with GPNs. Doctoral Candidate Carli Melo will explore these questions through a case study of Myanmar migrants employed in a global manufacturing production network in Thailand.

Map of Samut Sakhon Province, Thailand

Samut Sakhon Province in central Thailand is the research site for this project as it is a significant site of Myanmar migrant labour, export-oriented manufacturing industries, and COVID-19 disruptions. Of the estimated 660,000 migrant workers in Samut Sakhon, 400,000 are Myanmar nationals. In addition, the province is home to one of the world’s largest seafood processing industries, which employs an estimated 400,000 migrants.Thailand’s seafood processing sector has experienced pandemic disruptions as COVID-19 infections spread amongst migrant factory workers in Samut Sakhon in December 2020, sparking the country’s second wave of the pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak in Samut Sakhon, along with subsequent pandemic management regulations, have had adverse effects on the inclusion of migrant workers in global seafood processing production networks.

Drawing on scholarship within the sub-disciplines of economic geography, labour geography, feminist geography, and feminist political economy, Carli seeks to contribute to analyses addressing the “inclusionary bias” (Bair & Werner, 2011) within GPN literature by exploring the ways in which crises produce moments of inclusion and exclusion for migrant labour. She also strives to expand understandings of GPNs and labour agency by studying the ways in which workers’ agency is embedded in and conditioned by social and cultural relations and practices that are (re)produced at the scale of the household and community, and the more extensive transnational family geographies that GPNs involve.

Seafood processing workers in Thailand (Shutterstock)

To do so, Carli is conducting ten months of field research in Thailand. Specifically, she is interviewing Myanmar migrants employed and previously employed in Samut Sakhon’s seafood processing industry; members of migrant interviewees’ families in Myanmar; and representatives of government agencies, private firms, industry associations, civil society organizations, and labour unions. Carli is also observing migrant support organizations’ daily operations and public spaces where migrant workers are active, including at community events, outdoor markets, and labour actions such as strikes.

Carli’s research emerges from years of working with the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) –
a network of over 40 civil society organizations from across mainland Southeast Asia working to promote and protect the rights of migrant workers and their families. For her doctoral research, Carli will collaborate with members of MMN to conduct research and produce outputs that directly support their efforts to address inequities in the GPN model that continue to leave millions of migrants and their families unprotected against pandemic and political crises.

Carli Melo is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. Her dissertation is under the supervision of Professors Philip Kelly and Peter Vandergeest, and funded by a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship and YCAR awards. Carli holds a Master’s degree in Planning from the University of Toronto and an Honours Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies from McGill University. Carli worked as a project coordinator with the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) from 2016 to 2019. Since July 2021, she has been working as a research consultant for MMN while completing her doctoral studies.