Thailand is the world's leading food exporting country not only because of the country's natural abundance, but also because the food produced here is cheaper than that of other countries. This is also true with the 100-billion-baht shrimp export industry which is now facing allegations of using child migrant labour and other exploitative labour practices to keep Thai shrimp cheaper than those of its competitors.
The shrimp industry has come under severe scrutiny after the broadcast of a documentary by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States last month. In the documentary which focuses on the situation in Samut Sakhon province, migrant workers talk of dreadful work conditions. Many workers are minors, working long hours, and underpaid. The documentary also touches on human trafficking, debt bondage, and police extortion.
As if on cue, the authorities and major shrimp exporters in Samut Sakhon immediately came out to deny the PBS report. This is unwise. Instead of going on the defensive, Samut Sakhon, as the centre of the shrimp industry, must come up with effective measures to regulate the shrimp industry to keep the loyalty of its US market, which is the industry's biggest customer.
There is no use denying that child labour exists in this industry. It may not be a widespread phenomenon. But it does exist when it should not at all.
Abusive work conditions may not exist in large seafood factories. But the same thing cannot be said about the hundreds of small peeling sheds which supply the shrimp to those large factories.
According to official records, only 150 out of 700 primary seafood operators are registered with the Department of Fisheries.
The use of minors in the shrimp industry is just the latest international concern about the abusive treatment of migrant workers in Thailand. And it is among the easiest to solve. If the problem stems from a lack of regulation in the shrimp industry, then set up a proper regulatory system.
The law also requires that every child in the country, Thai or non-Thai, must receive a free compulsory education. If Samut Sakhon can show that it can provide education to all migrant children, then the child labour allegation will quickly go away.
It won't be as easy with other problems plaguing the fishing sector, however. They include human trafficking, slave labour on fishing boats, physical abuse, underpayment, confiscation of legal documents, and the perennial problem of police extortion. It is Thailand's inability to provide proof of any increase in efforts to solve these problems that has persuaded the US government to place Thailand on the Tier 2 Watch List for three consecutive years. If Thailand sinks to Tier 3, the country risks facing a range of boycott measures from the US.
At the heart of the maltreatment of migrant workers from Myanmar is ethnic prejudice. It is what makes Thais view migrant workers as a threat to national security. It is also what makes society turn a blind eye to the labour abuses and extortion faced by migrant workers.
If the authorities cannot change their mindset to improve the working conditions and welfare of migrant workers, they must do so for the country's self-interest at least. Nowadays, the customer's decision on whether to buy a product is increasingly influenced by rights concerns. If Thailand wants to retain its export markets overseas, fisheries authorities and the export industry must shape up before it's too late.