Looking for Clues: COVID-19 and “Facebook Fieldwork” with Cross-Border Burmese Migrants
From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies
From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies
On my way to the airport, leaving Ranong, the Thai-Myanmar border city, after my fieldwork was cut short by two weeks, due to the pandemic, I texted my new research associate.
Alin: ‘What are we going to do? Where can we find the respondents?’
Wai Yan replied enthusiastically: ‘Facebook!’
On the 23rd of March 2020, the Thai government announced a complete travel ban between the borders of Thailand and Myanmar, leaving 2.3 million Burmese migrant workers in limbo (Kadfak 2020). These workers have become the backbone of the growing Thai economy as they feed the high demand for low-paying jobs, such as construction and factory workers, domestic workers, farmers, and fishworkers. Not only did migrant workers risk losing their jobs and work permits due to the economic downturn, they also faced the uncertainty of accessing health care in Thailand (Marschke et al. 2021). In this involuntary restriction of movement, we decided to rethink our approach to fieldwork and research questions on Burmese migrants. Our solution (and this somewhat positive approach to digital fields of fieldwork is shared by researchers Langah and Montefrio in this series) was to turn our attention to the most used social media platform in the region—Facebook.
According to a recent International Labour Organization (2020) report, 79% of migrant workers (most of whom work in the seafood industry) own smartphones in Thailand. To our knowledge, the vibrant grasp migrant workers have on social media platforms, particularly Facebook and especially regarding conversations on migration and working conditions, remains untapped in scholarly discourse. We undertook this “field” journey using an explorative approach to web-based ethnography (Caliandro 2018) to look for clues on what Burmese migrant workers might be discussing on Facebook’s public pages. This exploratory work contributed additional clues to the puzzles that we are trying to piece together in our two research projects: one on the impacts of recent fisheries reform on migrant fishworkers and the other on labor reforms due to the recent scandal of modern-day slavery in Thailand’s seafood industry.
Between April and December 2020, we studied eighty Facebook
pages using snowball sampling and informed choices. We observed and
documented the types of Facebook pages, creation date, number of members
and followers, and the range of content. In addition, we also
interviewed eighteen Burmese migrant fishworkers in Ranong to further explore everyday usage of social media and communication platforms. Research
collaborator Wai Yan, who lives and works within the migrant community
himself, added to the knowledge regarding the real time online responses
of the community toward COVID-19 related government sanctions and
Our preliminary results showed some recurrent themes, including: the recruitment and hiring opportunities; the facilitating of worker voices; the reporting of labor rights violations; the networking within subgroups; the sharing information on migration; and the posting of updates on COVID-19 conditions. Most importantly, we noticed that (a) the majority of Facebook pages used by migrants had been created within the past three years, (b) there was quick response to posts, and (c) a sharing of COVID-19 related content on the platform. Facebook has become the most common and most used platform among migrant workers in Southeast Asia. All our informants had used Facebook to access news and everyday entertainment, as well as to stay connected to their communities in Thailand and Myanmar. Facebook has become the default choice of social media among migrant workers. It performs the important task of gathering all online content in one place on their smartphones. This is significant if one remembers that apart from the availability of cheaper smartphones, internet accessibility is also vital for migrant workers in the fishing industry. Our interviews revealed that fishworkers have less internet access while at sea and with poorer connection. This makes the group’s social connections more vulnerable just from having poorer access to information and online support.
Looking for clues on Facebook through digital ethnography may also help advance emerging research on Information and Communication technologies (ICTs) in the fisheries sector (this is echoed in Namboothri et al. in this series). ICTs have been promoted by non-government organizations and the private sector to address concerns on labor rights and modern-day slavery. The increased focus of ICTs holds out a promise to improve complaint mechanisms, due diligence and precarious work within the fisheries sector. Contradicting these lines of thinking, from our experience, complaints and fishworkers’ voices-related content are least documented or posted on Facebook pages. This result does not surprise us, since the accountability and trustworthiness of such a platform remains low in matters related to privacy from state surveillance. However, social media analysis may hold a key to cultural appropriateness and ethical sensitivity to help design better communication channels for migrant workers who seek help even if they might not choose to share stories of their own, often deplorable, migration conditions openly.
We consider our attempt of “going digital” to be at an early stage. COVID-19 forces us, researchers, to stay connected online. However, we see this in a positive light since migrant workers have already been active and have explored communication possibilities through online platforms (see Montefrio and Langah in this series). Social media platforms, such as Facebook, have transformed the nature of workers’ communications and networking. A report by Thai labor NGOs (Teerakowitkajorn 2020) shows that Facebook has become the second most reliable source of labor rights information after face-to-face communication. Staying connected with online information becomes essential for the workers, and even more so during the pandemic. Not only do migrant workers need to stay informed about the spread of the virus, but also they have to respond to government regulations for immigration and surveillance, as well as discrimination. To continue our engagement with digital ethnography, we need to carefully take on analytical concepts of online community, self-representation, public crowd, digital divides, and trust into consideration (Caliandro 2018). It is also crucial to be transparent about the methodological steps we employ in approaching online platforms.
Caliandro, Alessandro. 2018. “Digital Methods for Ethnography: Analytical Concepts for Ethnographers Exploring Social Media Environments.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 47, no. 5: 551–578.
International Labour Orgranization. 2020. “Endline Research Findings on Fishers and Seafood Workers in Thailand.” International Labour Organization, the United Nations, March 10.
Kadfak, Alin. 2020. “Migrant Workers May Be Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea During the COVID-19 Crisis.” Swedish International Agricultural Initiative, March 31.
Marschke, Melissa, Peter Vandergeest, Elizabeth Havice, Alin Kadfak, Peter Duker, Ilinca Isopescu, and Mallory MacDonnell. 2021. “COVID-19, instability and migrant fish workers in Asia.” Maritime Studies 20: 87-99.
Teerakowitkajorn, Kriangsak. 2020. “Falling Through the Net: A Survey of Basic Labour Rights Among Migrants Working in Thailand's Fishing Sector.” Oxfam, July 20.