Most of the sellers in Chiang Mai’s night bazaar are illegal Burmese migrants risking arrest and prison time hawking fake copies of famous brand name goods to crowds of foreign tourists.
So, the sellers and the goods they sell are both posing as the real thing and are both illegal in Thailand.
Thai police have made surprise raids and have arrested illegal workers many times since early last year, according to Ko Gam Maw, a Kachin, who sells copies of famous brand name watches, like Omega and Rolex.
"I have sold copy (fake) objects since I arrived here. I am afraid because I'm selling fake objects and I'm also illegal," Ko Gam Maw said. He said he has three years experience selling copies.
Famous brands like Gucci, D&G, Louis, Nike and Puma, as well as various sun glasses, sport shoes and various brands of belts seem like the real thing at the many stalls in the big market area. Foreign travelers like to buy the fake objects because they are very cheap.
"They know it's a fake object. The price of a fake is totally different from the real one. Moreover, the fake object also has a seal on it like a real brand item. Therefore foreign travelers buy it," a Burmese, who used to work as a seller at the night bazaar, said.
Plainclothes Thai police come to the night bazaar and check the stalls and shops one night before they make a raid to seize fake products and arrest illegal migrant sellers.
"If a Thai person, who is his age of 30 or 40, comes to buy an object at a shop, sellers are afraid to sell it because the sellers think that the person is Thai police," Ko Gam Maw said.
A Thai businessman told BNI the companies that make the famous brand name products pressure Thai authorities to seize and confiscate the knock offs of their products, which are registered in Thailand.
Burmese migrant sellers said there are twice as many of them, compared to Thai sellers.
Besides the selling fake watches and clothing, there are traditional crafts for sale in the market, such as electric bulbs made with colorized cotton fibers, intricate flowers cut from soap, water colors and oil paintings sold at Chiang Mai’s night bazaar.
Ko Ah Ar Si, a former seller of craft items told BNI the fake items sell much better and sellers make much higher wages, compared to traditional craft items.
"I earned 3,500 Bhat per month as a salary when I sold normal objects. I had to pay for food and room by myself. Therefore, I could not save money. I owed a debt. Finally, I changed my mind and switched to selling copy (fake) objects, but, fear being arrested," he said.
Now he earns 5,000 bhat per month as a salary and a 1% commission payment. If business is good, his boss gives him a pocket money besides the salary. But, he has no holidays, so he is very tired, he said.
Naw Hae Nar, who works selling colorized electric bulbs in a shop, said she earns less salary but she wants to avoid being arrested by Thai police.
"I will never work selling fake goods because I'm afraid to be arrested. I would have to run away when police raid the market. Therefore, I work at the traditional craft selling shops even though I earn less salary. But, it's very peaceful," she said.
At the night bazaar, most migrant Burmese sellers have labor registration cards, but, there are very few who have a permanent resident card.
Thai authorities do not allow any person who only has a labor registration card to work as a seller in the night bazaar.
Phi So Pha, a Thai businesswoman, said that Burmese migrants Burmese are used to sell the copies because these migrant sellers can speak basic English. Most Thais are not working in the stalls selling fake objects.
According to Thailand's copy right laws, if a person caught producing or selling knock offs will be sentenced to between 3 months and 2 years of prison time and or pay a fine of between 50,000 to 400,000 bhat.
Some Thai business owners will try to work for the release of their staff, but, others will accept no responsibility.
"When I was arrested by Thai police, my boss didn't come to bring me back. Therefore I was sentenced to 3 months in jail. When I got to police station, I could not call to my boss. Finally, I was put in jail for 3 months," said Ko Thi Ha, who escaped twice but was finally caught in a raid.
One Thai businessman said that making the effort to get the sellers released from arrest depends on how good a worker they are.
"It much depends on the laborers. If they are working well in the shop, working hard, are punctual and respect the boss, shop owners won't ignore them," a Thai businessman said.
"If Thai or migrant Burmese workers work hard, I'll give them equal opportunity," Thai business woman Phi So Pha, said.
It's very difficult to help migrant Burmese workers, who have been arrested by Thai police, according to Ko Sein Htay, from the Thai-Burma border based Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF).
"We can help them if they are working legally. For instance, if the don't get salary or if they are exploited, we can help them. It's really difficult to help them if they violate the laws by selling copy and fake objects," he said.
Migrant Burmese workers said that they don't have a choice. Therefore, they are selling illegal and fake objects.
"We continue this job because we have no other jobs. We don't have any choice," Ko Thi Ha, who works selling copies of DVDs said.
"I have had many difficulties since I left Burma. I'm afraid to lose a job because I can not send money back to my family. House rent and food price is high. Therefore, even though I don't want to work at this shop, I have to work there,” he said.
Economic hardship because of high prices and increasing unemployment in Burma is pushing many youths to find employment in neighboring countries, like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
It is estimated there are over 2 million Burmese migrants working in Thailand.
Thai authorities have extended a February deadline for migrant workers to register for work permits to March 31.
Burmese migrant workers who hold a passport can travel easily in Thailand but they are not allowed to move from job to job. Therefore, they have a lot of problems, U Sein Htay said.
If Thai polices come to seize fake products and arrest illegal migrants at the night bazaar in Chiang Mai, illegal workers try to escape immediately. It's like small animals escaping from a hunting Tiger.
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