Migrant workers protest

Migrant workers protest

Recent protests by thousands of migrant workers in Songkla and Kanchanaburi has exposed further evidence of how Thai exporters to giant American, European and Australian food chains have gone unaudited.

Thousands of Cambodian and Burmese workers claimed during strikes early this month at Pattana Seafood factory in Songkla they were being seriously exploited. They accused their employer of reducing meal allowances, docking their pay for so called "bondage payments" and holding their passports to prevent them from leaving.

One of the striking workers said the company has reduced their food allowance (20 baht per day) and decreased the attendance bonus (from 400 baht every two weeks to 300 baht per month) from the new wage of 247 baht since April 1.

The company and the broker CDM Trading Manpower, the workers said, have sent away a few hundred people who wanted to return home, but the others either could not make a decision or continued to argue for their rights, such as whether they had to pay to get their passports back and for transportation.

They said after April 19, the company will deal with the labour problem again, sources said.

Thai labour authorities said they were monitoring the situation and believe the resentment stems from misunderstandings due to the language barrier.

Pattana Seafood has had no strikes at its other branches in Samut Sakhon’s Mahachai and Chantaburi, Anusorn Kraiwatnussorn, the vice labour minister said.

“In Mahachai, they may have Burmese interlocutors that might help fine-tune internal communications between employers and employees, while in Chantaburi, they might have Khmer-speaking people who clarifies things to the workers. But not so in Songkla,” Mr Anusorn told the Bangkok Post.

Company representatives could not provide adequate information and claimed there was no labour problem at the Songkla factory.

Pattana Seafood is a key exporter of seafood to Australia, the US and Europe. According to American labour union sources, the company is a large supplier of shrimp to Walmart.

Cambodian ambassador to Thailand You Ay told the Bangkok Post said she has told the CDM broker who brought in 800 workers from Cambodia to work at the Songkla factory to settle the issue quickly and smoothly or she will appeal to her government to withdraw its licence in Phnom Penh.

“Now, 90% of the protesters have agreed to a settled deal. Those who are satisfied with the work and wage-payment conditions can continue to stay there, but for those who want a new job, CDM will see to it,” Ms You Ay said.

She said she has communicated with the factory and CDM and advised the workers to respect Thai labour laws and not to resort to any violence.

The Cambodian ambassador said the problem was that the factory is cutting the food allowance of 20 baht as it had agreed to increase the daily wage from 147 baht to 274 baht from April 1. But they have not been able to settle the issue with the workers.

UN sources confirmed the hasty, and at times illegal, migration routes of the Cambodian workers coming to the Songkla factory. For example, 20-year-old Sok from Kampong Thom, who learnt of the work opportunity through a CDM Trading Manpower Co advertisement, signed a Khmer/English contract that he did not read.

CDM told them that the length of the contract would be two years, and after it expired they would provide transport back to Cambodia. They would also provide a room to stay, a mattress, pillow, plate and a food allowance.

But when he got to Thailand, he found he had to work 26 days a month. He got his salary every two weeks, but half was withheld to ensure he did not run away. “Most of the workers wanted to go home, but we will be in debt from preparing to travel and an unknown amount we are told to pay to get passports and transportation,” he said.

Similar conditions exist for 395 Burmese workers, who came in groups between October and February, Burmese sources said.

A separate protest was also reported at Vita, a pineapple canning factory in Kanchanaburi province on April 11. Sources said a stand-off between the factory and the workers, thousands of them from neighbouring Myanmar, remained tense with local police called in to ensure no violence.

The Vita company is a key supplier of food to Walmart. According to US Customs Import, 356 of 485 shipments from Vita to the US -- or 73 per cent -- went to Walmart under the “Great Value” private label of Walmart.

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