Child migrant workers still exploited in seafood industry
Initiatives to combat the problem of underage labourers in the business have improved thanks largely to worries of losing export markets. However, the problem is still evident in the country's fish-processing towns and activists are calling on new measures and a fresh mindset to combat it
Da, a 17-year-old girl from Myanmar, was excited when a volunteer teacher from the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation visited her in the cramped rented room she shares with four family members in Samut Sakhon province. The volunteer told Da about an upcoming youth camp LPN, a non-governmental organisation assisting migrant labourers in the province, was planning.
PROOF IS IN THE PICTURES: Above and on accompanying pages, recent photos of children working at a primary shrimp processing operation at the Samut Sakhon shrimp market. A ‘Spectrum’ investigation found that child labour was still rife in the industry.
''When will it be held, teacher? I'd like to join,'' the girl asked.
Da was deflated by the answer. ''I can't go then. I have to work that day,'' she said.
Da came from Ye, a town in Mon state, five years ago. She has been peeling skin from fish and removing bones from processed ones at a factory in Samut Sakhon's Muang district since she was 13. She works from 7am to 7pm, Monday to Saturday. Her daily wage varies depending on the amount of fish she can peel. On a good day, Da earns 400 baht, and gives it all to her mother.
Da said she's happier to be earning much more than the 150 baht a day she made while working at a construction site in Bangkok five years ago.
Da's nephew, Man, who is much smaller than the typical 16-year-old boy, works at the same factory. He started when he was 10.
On the other side of Samut Sakhon town, Pai, a skinny 17-year-old teenager woke up at 5pm.
He was exhausted but had to rush off for a night shift at a frozen seafood factory near a house he rents with about 10 migrant workers from Myanmar.
Pai came to Thailand with his mother three years ago. After arriving here, he had the chance to study at a state-run school in Samut Sakhon under a joint project by the school and the LPN to provide basic education for migrant children.
He dropped out this year to work at the factory to help his parents.
A few blocks away from Pai's rented house, another girl from Myanmar, Pimpa, 16, just returned from work at the same factory. Pimpa, from Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon state, works from 4am to 4pm in the factory's laundry facility. She has been there since she was 13.
LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER
On the surface, there appears to be nothing wrong with these young people from Myanmar working in these jobs as they are all - or at least all claim to be - above 15, the minimum working age under Thai labour laws.
But Sompong Srakaew, founder and director of the LPN, said that when it comes to migrant children working in the shrimp and seafood processing industry, the matter is not so simple.
''We will never know the true age of these young migrants. If you ask any of them who come from Myanmar to work, they will tell you that they are over 15.
''Many of them even have work permits, which can be issued only to migrant workers over 18 years old,'' said Mr Sompong, who has been dealing with issues related to migrant children for almost 10 years.
Mr Sompong said authorities in both Thailand and Myanmar involved in nationality verification and work permit issuance are well aware of the problem of minors lying about their age.
However, the authorities have no choice but to believe them because most migrants do not have any official documents to verify their age.
The Samut Sakhon provincial office registered 337,665 migrant labourers in the province as of September 2011, about 310,000 of whom were from Myanmar, while the rest were from Laos and Cambodia.
However, the LPN estimates that figure would surpass 400,000 if it were to include unregistered migrant workers. Of this number, about 15,000 are children younger than 15 years of age, while around 40,000 are aged between 15 to 18.
According to the Labour Ministry, the majority of migrant children accompanied their parents to Thailand, while some were born here.
CHILD LABOUR OUT IN THE OPEN
''Judging from the large number of migrant children residing in Samut Sakhon and the rapid increase in the number of factories here, we are quite sure that the use of child labour under 15 persists in the province, especially in small, unregistered factories which are very difficult to monitor,'' Mr Sompong said.
Although Mr Sompong said more surveys and studies were needed to prove his assumption, it was not difficult to see children working in Samut Sakhon's seafood industry.
Spectrum visited the city's shrimp market in late August and found about a dozen Myanmar children, aged around 12 or younger, working there. Some were peeling shrimp or cleaning equipment, while others were hauling around fully-laden shrimp baskets.
Under Thai labour law, employers are allowed to hire teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18. However, they must comply with the Labour Protection Act, which requires employers to report having these young workers on staff upon hiring them, Mr Sompong said.
The law also sets out basic working standards for these workers. For example, they must not work between 10pm and 6am and are banned from doing dangerous types of work.
These young workers are also protected under the International Labour Organization (ILO)'s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.
Under the convention, to which Thailand is a signatory, a child is defined as anyone under the age of 18.
Thailand is also a signatory to the ILO's Minimum Age Convention, which sets the minimum working age at 15.
The former was ratified in 2001, while the Minimum Age Convention was ratified in 2004.
Despite these moves, the use of child labour in the seafood industry continued and was brought into the spotlight by a 2008 report entitled ''The True Cost of Shrimp'' released by Washington-based labour rights group the Solidarity Centre.
The report interviewed workers in the shrimp-processing industries in Thailand and Bangladesh and highlighted the prevalence of child labour, human trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour and failure to pay promised wages.
The allegations were vehemently denied by the Thai government and those in the shrimp and seafood industry.
Following the release of the report, Washington placed Thailand - the world leader in the shrimp industry and the No1 source of shrimp for the US - on its Tier 2 Watch List because of insufficient efforts to tackle and prosecute human-trafficking gangs.
SHAMED INTO ACTING
The report and the inclusion on the watch list dealt a serious blow to the Thai shrimp industry, which has an annual trade value of about 100 billion baht, putting it at risk of losing the US and other overseas markets.
The bad publicity also led to unprecedented cooperation between state, private and non-governmental agencies to combat the use of child labour in the industry.
''I cannot confirm that child labour abuse persists in the industry nor can I guarantee that it does not exist,'' said Arthorn Piboonthanapathana, secretary-general of the Thai Frozen Foods Association (TFFA), whose membership includes over 200 seafood processing plants.
''But what I can say is that awareness and efforts to combat child labour abuse in the industry have increased over the past four years because we don't want to lose our export markets because of this problem,'' he said.
Mr Arthorn said all of his organisation's members are committed to eliminating child labour. However, he admitted that it was difficult to ensure that other parts in the industry supply chain are child labour-free.
Small-scale workplaces that do primary processing, such as sorting, peeling and deveining, are the prime suspects when it comes to the use of illegal child labour, said Mr Arthorn.
There are several of these operations in seafood processing provinces, including Samut Sakhon. Some of them are family businesses, while others supply shrimp to seafood exporters, he said.
The TFFA is now working with the Fisheries Department, the Labour Ministry and the LPN to survey the number and location of these small-scale operations in four seafood processing provinces - Samut Sakhon, Surat Thani, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla.
''Once this mapping is completed, it will be easier for us to work with them and set out preventive measures against the use of child labour,'' Mr Arthorn said.
The initiative is part of a four-year project by the ILO called ''Promoting Better Working Conditions in Thai Shrimp and Seafood Industry''. Funded by the US Department of Labour, the project was launched in December 2010 and will conclude in 2014. The project aims to strengthen labour laws to protect the rights of Thai and migrant workers and to end the use of child labour in the shrimp and seafood processing industry.
''The preliminary findings of the project indicate that there are incidences of child labour, mostly in primary seafood processing, and in particular in the age group of 15-17 years,'' said Tuomo Poutiainen, project manager of the ILO International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour Thailand.
These findings are in accordance with Thailand's five-year National Policy and Plan to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labour (2009-2014), which states that the problems of child labour still persist in the Kingdom, especially among migrant children who illegally cross the border.
Mr Poutiainen, who is based in Bangkok, said Thailand needs a national survey on child labour, which will provide better information about the issue and help the government develop better policies and practices.
''There is a general lack of information - by employers, workers, members of communities and often families [about] child labour, about the negative effects of working at too early an age,'' Mr Poutiainen said.
Although there are several measures concerned agencies must adopt, Mr Poutiainen said Thai authorities, such as the Labour Protection and Welfare Department and Fisheries Department officials, were ''tuned in'' to the child labour issue and are engaged in finding longer term solutions to address it.
''What is important is that all employers are aware that the issues of child labour and working conditions in general must be addressed in modern ... business,'' Mr Poutiainen said, adding that businesses cannot expect to sell to international markets if they don't show awareness of this issue and respond to it. Workers and members of the public also have an important role to play, he said.
''Whenever someone suspects that there is a situation of child labour, it should be reported to the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare. The more understanding people have of what is right and what is wrong in terms of children's employment, the easier it is to eliminate child labour.''
'PROGRESS BEING MADE'
Songsri Boonba, former deputy labour permanent-secretary, said tackling child labour in the shrimp and seafood processing industry had become a priority for the ministry ever since Thailand's inclusion on the US watch list. Ms Songsri was involved with the issue extensively herself until her retirement in September.
She said Thailand was making satisfactory progress in safeguarding Thai and migrant children from workplace abuse and exploitation.
This is evident in the implementation of the five-year national policy to eliminate the worst forms of child labour; the enforcement of labour protection laws; the establishment of national and ministerial level committees; and the operation of help centres for migrant labourers in provinces where many of them reside, she said.
The national policy which provides basic education for all Thai children up to the age of 15 had also helped reduce the number of underage workers, Ms Songsri said.
In fact, the National Statistic Office recorded a decrease in child labour from 334,207 in 2004 to 227,013 in 2011.
However, she admitted that there might be cases in which child labour goes under the authorities' radar.
''We have a serious shortage of inspectors,'' Ms Songsri said. ''We have less than 700 who have to inspect hundreds of thousands of workplaces across the country, including outside the seafood industry.''
Ms Songsri said the Budget Bureau and Office of the Civil Service Commission had repeatedly rejected the ministry's request for more workplace inspectors, citing budget concerns.
To help eliminate child labour in Thailand and to cut down on workplace abuses in general, the two agencies should have a ''paradigm shift'' when considering budget allocations and manpower for the Labour Ministry, Ms Songsri said.
She also said that the underage migrant worker problem was closely tied to the government's policy on migrant labour registration. She said the government would only complicate matters by extending the registration period for migrant labourers beyond the current Dec 14 deadline, which was already extended from June 14. A further extension could result in an influx of migrant labourers who would take the opportunity to sneak into the country and work illegally.
''When the current round of migrant labour registration ends in December, those who do not have work permits will be deported back to their country of origin. This will make it easier for us to regulate both young and adult migrant workers,'' she said.
Ms Songsri insisted that the ministry was ready to cooperate with labour groups, the private sector and the ILO in tackling the problem of child labour.
''Although we have not been able to eliminate child labour in our country, at least we have been working and trying very hard to achieve that goal,'' she said.
ARRESTED CHILDHOODS: VOICES OF YOUNG WORKERS
A large number of migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, are working in the shrimp and seafood processing industry in Samut Sakhon province. Many of them are under 17 years of age. Spectrum spoke to three young migrant workers last month.
Da is a 17-year-old girl who works at a canned fish factory. A 17-year-old boy, Pai, and a 16-year-old girl, Pimpa, work at the same frozen seafood factory.
When and how did you come here?
Da: My mum came to work here first and then she went back to our village and brought me here five years ago.
Pai: I came here with my mum when I was 14.
Pimpa: I came here with my relatives in 2009. We paid 10,000 baht to an agent who arranged all the transportation and paperwork for us.
What was your first job and at what age did you start working?
Da: I worked at the construction site of a housing estate in Bangkok when I was 12 before moving to Samut Sakhon.
Pai: This is my first job. I just quit school for work this year.
Pimpa: I've been working at a laundry unit in a factory since I was 13.
What are your working hours?
Da: I work from 7am to 7pm.
Pai: I'm on the night shift. I wake up at 5pm and work from 6pm until 6am.
Pimpa: I work from 4am to 4pm.
Do you have days off?
Da: I don't have to work on Sundays.
Pai: One day a week.
Pimpa: Tuesday is my day off.
What are your dreams for the future?
Da: I want to go home to Myanmar and never come back here again. Life here is full of fear. There is nothing to fear in Myanmar.
Pai: I don't know.
Pimpa: I want to stop working and travel around the world.
About the author
- Writer: Kultida Samabuddhi