Aye, a 35-year-old woman from Myanmar, had been working at a shrimp peeling factory in Samut Sakhon for two years when Covid-19 began to spread in the area last December, causing her factory to be shut down and her to be sent home to quarantine without pay or any support from her employer.
During an in-depth interview with a civil society organisation the following month, she explained: "I have been out of work for over a month without knowing when I will be able to return. Our savings are not enough. We eat rice only on some days or buy vegetables. I worry if I get infected, my child will be alone." Migrant workers like Aye, who collectively generate billions of dollars in annual exports for Thailand and vast profits for global corporations, are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 crisis. Workers who produce, process and pack seafood products for consumers around the world remain exposed to profound risks and have been pushed to economic desperation with access to few labour rights and social protections.
Since December 2020, Covid-19 cases in Thailand have surged from 3,900 to 26,441. The majority of those infected are migrant workers in Samut Sakhon, who come from neighbouring nations to work in Thailand's seafood industry. In a country that previously boasted one of the lowest numbers of cases per capita worldwide, this outbreak caused nationwide alarm and exposed crucial gaps in the pandemic response.
The impacts of the outbreak could have been mitigated if migrant workers had adequate labour rights and the agency to shape their working and living conditions, especially through rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Migrant workers in Samut Sakhon are made to live in crowded and unhygienic accommodation and have limited access to personal protective equipment, healthcare and other social services. Seafood processing workers, mostly women from Myanmar and Cambodia, work in both freezing and hot temperatures and stand for long periods of time on processing lines and in close proximity to each other. Earlier in 2020, their working hours had become longer and more intense with higher production quotas due to a notable increase in demand for shelf-stable seafood from people following "stay at home" orders across the globe (for some companies, sales rose by 5.9%). These conditions have made migrants especially vulnerable to the virus.
Once the first Covid-19 cases were detected in a shrimp market and neighbouring apartment complex in December, migrants were subjected to harsh lockdowns. Government authorities then used barbed wire to seal off an area housing around 3,000 migrants, collectively quarantining infected and non-infected workers together, while providing very limited information or space for discussion about their prospects. Workers suffered sudden job loss or had working hours drastically reduced. They became unable to afford even basic necessities or were locked out of their apartments unable to pay rent.
At every step of this process, the risk of spreading the virus could have been reduced immeasurably if only migrants had representatives able to communicate directly with employers and the government about their needs and to develop workable solutions together. However, Thai law explicitly bans non-Thai nationals from forming labour unions.
This means that the 3-4 million migrant workers in the country, including the estimated 400,000 in the seafood industry, have no legal organisation or legitimate representatives through which to improve working and living conditions or influence the laws and policies that impact them.
Before her factory closed down, Aye had worked 16 hours per day (from 3am to 7pm), making between US$3-13 (100-400 baht) per day depending on the number of shrimps she was able to peel. She travelled to work each day in the back of a pickup with buckets of shrimp, fearful that they would fall on her. The factory did not provide her with any personal protective equipment or days off.
Aye is currently renting a 3x3 metre room for 2,500 baht per month that she shares with her husband, who is a fisherman, and their child. They feel it is too narrow and uncomfortable and would like to move elsewhere but costs are prohibitive. During the Covid-19 quarantine, they hoped to pay lower rent but dared not negotiate with the landlord for fear of being forced to vacate. "Nobody has ever come to educate us about our rights. I only know that I need a job. If you work, you earn money," said Aye. "I don't know how to make a complaint to the company, but no one would dare to do so anyway. They would be afraid of losing their jobs or further abuse. If you can't do the job, you just move out on your own. If some workers take time off because they are sick or tired, they are cursed at."
These unrepresented workers have, for decades, been producing and processing a huge portion of the shrimp and tuna sold by major brands and retailers around the world, including Walmart, Costco, Bumble Bee, Mars and others. After journalists revealed horrific human rights abuse on fishing boats in 2014, such companies banded together forming the Seafood Task Force to "address the risks of human rights abuses in supply chains", yet collectively they have not ensured workers' enjoyment of their fundamental right to organise.
This lack of worker representation made it almost impossible for workers to demand workplace protections when the pandemic hit.
The Thai Civil Society Organisation Coalition for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood (CSO Coalition) investigated and submitted a report with concrete recommendations to the Seafood Task Force on the devastating impacts of the December 2020 outbreak on workers in their supply chains. However, the CSO Coalition has yet to see the Task Force act on their recommendations.
Without union representation, global corporations have an easier time ignoring the advice of advocates on the ground who work closely with workers and instead favour inadequate voluntary measures.
Seafood processing workers are eager to organise and have made bold attempts to do so. In one case, more than 2,000 migrant workers employed by a tuna processor in Samut Sakhon attempted to negotiate for better health and safety conditions such as protections for nightshift workers.
However, they then faced pressure by the employer and ultimately won only a small portion of their demands.
The Thai government must reform its labour laws to afford migrant workers full rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, including the ability to form and lead labour unions.
As stated in the CSO Coalition report, international brands and retailers sourcing from Thailand must fund and support suppliers to handle the Covid-19 pandemic and systematically improve working and living conditions; conduct robust human rights due diligence in their supply chains and remediate workers when abuses are found; and make public company action plans outlining how they will address this crisis.
Critically, international buyers must ensure suppliers promote workers' rights to form unions and bargain without fear of retaliation. Freedom of association and collective bargaining rights are internationally guaranteed rights that must be afforded to all workers without distinction.
Kimberly Rogovin is the Senior Seafood Campaign Coordinator for Global Labour Justice – International Labour Rights Forum.