Lip service alone won't end migrant labour misery, say activists
A first-ever meeting to tackle human trafficking in the seafood industry among politicians, government officials and NGOs was a positive step, but without a clear government plan Thai companies _ and the foreign giants who source from them _ will continue profiting from exploitation
Thailand and multinationals benefiting from the export of cheap seafood are facing increasing pressure from the international community to address human trafficking abuses in seafood and other industries.
SINKING FORTUNES: Migrant workers sort fish on a Thai fishing boat in Sattahip, Rayong province. Many of the men on such boats are unwilling and forced to work in brutal conditions.
On June 6 at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok, over 30 representatives from the Royal Thai Government, seafood companies, international retailers and the UN met to discuss the long-standing and escalating problem of human trafficking in the seafood industry. The meeting, which was organised by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (Uniap), focused on finding solutions to the human trafficking issues through public-private sector collaboration. It was the first meeting of its kind.
In the months leading up to the conference, Thai factories had been getting unwanted attention. In mid-April, hundreds of migrant workers at Phatthana Seafood in Songkhla went on strike, protesting unfair wages according to media reports.
At the same time, thousands of workers at Vita Food Factory, a large producer of pineapple and canned fruit for foreign markets, stopped working for similar reasons.
LOW PRICES, WHICHEVER WAY: Customers leave a Walmart store in Aurora, Colorado. The company has been accused of buying seafood and other goods from sources which exploit workers.
The strikes, which were followed by police raids, crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and audits by government officials, cast new light on a problem that has existed in the Gulf of Thailand for at least two decades.
Word of the protests drifted to international media, and human rights organisations started appealing to companies who did business with the accused factories. A campaign called ''Walmart: Stop human rights abuses in your factories'', run through the website SumofUs, has collected almost 100,000 signatures.
Additionally, the US State Department recently threatened to downgrade Thailand from a Tier 2 Watch List country to Tier 3 status _ the lowest possible rating _ in its report on human trafficking. But Thailand was granted an exemption by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because of a written plan from the Thai government that, if implemented effectively, will put the country on a path to meeting minimum standards for combating trafficking.
RIGHTS OVERBOARD: A migrant worker labours under demanding conditions on a Thai fishing boat in Sattahip, Rayong province.
Tier 3 status, which could lead to several US sanctions, indicates that a country is not meeting minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.
THE WALMART CONNECTION
Multinationals who source from Thai factories have an ambiguous history regarding the promotion of human rights.
Every company present at the Uniap conference has expressed serious concern over human rights violations. Walmart, the world's largest retailer, told Spectrum that it removed Vita Food from its supply chain as of last year, but continues to work with the company to improve labour conditions.
''As part of our standard audit process, Walmart stopped its supplier from using Vita Foods in 2011 after Vita failed to correct labour issues found in their factories,'' said Walmart International corporate affairs manager Megan Murphy.
However, according to data gathered by Change to Win, a US based labour federation, Vita continues to export ''Great Value'' brand goods, a Walmart exclusive brand. In fact, 314 shipments _ roughly two-thirds of Vita's exports over the past year _ were of ''Great Value'' products, suggesting that Walmart received Vita shipments ''as recently as March 19'', according to Wol-san Liem, Asia representative for Change to Win.
Repeated interview requests and inquiries sent to Vita Foods for this article were ignored.
A similar situation exists with Phatthana Seafood, according to reports in the Cambodia Daily newspaper and Change to Win, who have allegedly linked Walmart and the company through shrimp shipment records.
However, Ms Murphy dismissed the allegations. ''Walmart has never sourced products from Phattana Seafood,'' she said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director, Asia, at Human Rights Watch, who was at the Uniap conference, said, ''[Walmart] is not as serious about monitoring its supply chain as it suggests.''
''How do you account for this data ... Walmart's track record is much more spotty than it should be.''
Mr Robertson said Uniap was a ''beginning'', but he had reservations the companies in attendance _ which included Walmart, Chicken of the Sea, Aqua Star, the Thai Frozen Foods Association and several others _ were committed to change.
''Just having this dialogue is not a solution,'' he said.
However, to some activists, the meeting was a sign some buyers may be becoming more vigilant.
''They're concerned they are being deceived or lied to by Thai companies,'' said Andy Hall, a foreign expert at the Mahidol Migration Centre who attended the conference. ''They're on the ground now to see for themselves what's happening.''
Despite the complaints from the international community, the Thai government has remained largely quiet on debt bondage and human trafficking taking place across several industries.
The core legislation in some sectors _ which dates back to the 1940s _ is considered by international organisations to be outdated and inadequate.
For the fishing industry, which is known for relying on migrant labour and is often called out for human rights violations, the main body of law was ''conceived at a time when Thailand's fisheries were almost entirely artisanal'', according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. ''There is a general consensus that a new act is needed.''
A recent report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking lists several concerns from a visit in August 2011, including ''the lack of capacity and willingness of law enforcement authorities to properly identify trafficked persons'', ''the low rate of prosecution and delays in prosecuting trafficking cases'' and ''the insufficient efforts made to tackle the root causes, such as restrictive immigration policies and the abuse of the human rights of migrants''.
The government of Thailand refuted several of the report's claims, citing inaccuracies and errors.
As far as regulation goes, there's not much structure in place to prevent debt bondage and trafficking from continuing.
''There's no central body to manage migration,'' said Mr Hall, who has been lobbying the government to adopt more proactive policies towards migration. ''We've been trying to get laws to regulate brokers for about a decade, and they haven't done anything.''
However, things will have to change if the Thai government wishes not to be scorned by the international community. To remain a Tier 2 Watch List country _ which is still a poor rating _ the government must ''raise its game'', said Mr Robertson.
''They have to prove they have an interest in workers' rights,'' he said. ''They can't throw their hands up in the air and shake off responsibility.''
RESTLESSNESS ON THE GROUND
In the factories themselves, there have been reports of limited improvement since the protests, but labour organisations hold little hope of an industry-wide shift away from abusive practices.
At 7:30am on April 11, thousands of workers at the pineapple division of Vita Foods went on strike. The Bangkok Post reported at the time that workers were expecting a raise to 252 baht per day, due to the government's new minimum wage policy that took effect on April 1, and were troubled to see no increase. Meanwhile, at Phatthana Seafood in Songkhla, hundreds of Cambodian migrants also refused to work. Although the factory started implementing the new minimum wage policy, workers said it was accompanied by a 20 baht per day deduction for food, as well as a cut in bonuses that amounted to 500 baht per month. According to the Labour Labour, workers need 187 baht a day to subsist.
NO REST FOR THE WEARY: A fishing boat arrives at the dock, as migrant workers prepare to board and begin sorting fish.
Cambodian ambassador to Thailand You Ay visited Songkhla on June 9, and said problems at Phattana have been resolved. Improvements like gardens and recreational facilities for workers now make it ''the model for Thai factories'', You Ay wrote in an email.
At Vita, factory managers told the Bangkok Post at the time that the strike was a matter of miscommunication, adding the wage increases would take effect after April 1 but not on that date, although that was the date the policy took effect. In their next pay packet, workers were being compensated according to the new minimum wage policies, according to Mr Hall.
Still, these improvements do not combat human trafficking, and labour activists say that the most significant changes will have to come from the Thai government first.
''They are the ones responsible for protecting human rights,'' Mr Robertson said. ''[But] their efforts have been nothing short of pathetic.''
OF HUMAN BONDAGE: A TRAFFICKING TALE
By the end of 2008, Ko Oo was ready to leave his hometown in Kayin State, located on Myanmar's eastern border. He had little to his name and owed his broker 25,000 baht for the journey, but that wasn't important now: He was on his way to Thailand.
Ko Oo, along with about 250 other migrants, was in search of a better life, and he thought the risks involved in escaping to Thailand were well worth it. Decent wages at manufacturing factories, a comfortable lifestyle in Thai cities, freedoms that are far out of reach in Myanmar _ these are the promises thousands of the country's citizens hear and dream about.
But that promise rarely materialises. It can cost from 15,000 to 25,000 baht to be transported from Myanmar to a Thai factory, and Ko Oo _ whose account was gathered by a Bangkok-based NGO _ told his broker, named Zaw Min, that he would work off his debt when he got to Thailand. He and the 250 others were put on five river boats and embarked for the Myanmar-Thai border. Before they even reached the Three Pagodas Pass, where they would cross into Thailand by foot, they encountered their first shock: A crew of robbers boarded their boats, put bags on their heads and demanded 20,000 kyat (800 baht) per person. Ko Oo had enough money with him, but three women on his boat didn't and were taken by the robbers, who retreated into the forests. Almost four years later, Ko Oo still hasn't heard anything about their fate.
The group stayed at the Three Pagodas Pass for seven days, and walked through the jungle for three days to avoid the immigration checkpoint. On the third day, they reached five trucks waiting for them in Thong Pha Phum in Kanchanaburi.
Ko Oo was taken to the Vita Food Factory, a large producer of canned fruit, vegetables and juices that exports most of its products internationally (to countries such as Europe, the US, Canada, Japan and China). Vita employs 5,000-7,000 workers across three divisions. According to Myanmar Deputy Labour Minister Myint Thein, more than half of Vita Food's workers are from Myanmar, and 700 are undocumented. Labour organisations that have conducted investigations put the ratio of Myanmar workers to Thai workers at 13:1. However, Vita Food's human resources manager, Somphop Thirasas, has said there are 3,000 Thai workers and 2,000 legally registered Myanmar workers at the factory.
Of the migrant workers, some are documented and some are undocumented (Ko Oo is considered undocumented), but all have similar complaints. There have been reports by labour activists of no clean drinking water in the factory, no sick leave and no annual holidays. But workers voice their sharpest criticism regarding wages. Prior to April 11, workers told various media and NGOs they were paid 180 baht per day and 32 baht per hour for overtime. But the pay packets never added up to this due to fees that the brokers added on, including 500-1,000 baht for a uniform, 1,000 baht per month for a working card and 300 or 600 baht per month for a police fee, depending on whether they were documented or undocumented workers.
Ko Oo has heard stories of people who flee because of the huge debts they owe to their brokers, and the ones who are caught are brought back and sometimes beaten in front of other workers.
Social activists refer to the system of exploitation used by the brokers as debt bondage, whereby workers must pay off a loan that arbitrarily increases and can become impossible to settle. Labour organisations and the United Nations consider debt bondage a form of modern-day slavery.
"Brokers are very in control of the workers. There's a lot of back-door dealing going on, a lot of abuse, a lot of corruption," said Andy Hall, a foreign expert at the Mahidol Migration Centre.
About the author
Writer: Adam Janofsky