Migrant seafood workers face crisis

Migrant seafood workers face crisis

A female worker arranges fresh squid at a food processing factory in Chon Buri. A recent survey found 80% of women said they got paid less than the monthly equivalent of the daily minimum wage, which is already meagre at 313 to 336 baht. (Photo: Paritta Wangkiat)
A female worker arranges fresh squid at a food processing factory in Chon Buri. A recent survey found 80% of women said they got paid less than the monthly equivalent of the daily minimum wage, which is already meagre at 313 to 336 baht. (Photo: Paritta Wangkiat)

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every corner of Thailand and the resulting economic downturn has left millions of people at risk. Across the country, people have lost jobs, become homeless and struggled to feed their families.

This is also true for most migrant workers in Thailand's seafood industry. However, these workers were already struggling long before Covid-19 and the current crisis has only compounded the challenges they face, pushing them further into poverty.

Between November 2020 and January 2021, the The Civil Society Organisation (CSO) Coalition conducted research into the conditions faced by migrant workers in Thailand's seafood industry during the pandemic. The study looked at four sectors of the industry: fishing, pre-processing, processing factory, and aquaculture. More than half of the study respondents are paid less than what the government considers enough to live on.

Under Thai law, the minimum wage is set at a daily rate, which varies between provinces, from 313 baht to 336 baht, with a rationale that it is "reasonably sufficient" for one worker to live on for a day.

We used the government's own daily rate multiplied by 30 as the benchmark for calculating the minimum amount an individual should earn to be able to survive for a whole month. Our findings about what migrant workers earn are alarming, though not surprising.

More than half -- about 58% -- of all seafood workers interviewed earn less than the benchmark of the daily minimum wage multiplied by 30, and about one-fifth receive 70% of this amount or less per month. For this latter group, this means that on nine out of 30 days, they are unable to feed themselves according to the government's own estimation of living costs.

A 35-year-old female seafood worker told us that "I eat only rice, and some days there is no food. I can only buy vegetables at this time. I can't afford to buy pork. I haven't eaten any meat. Now we don't need any help, we want to have a job. If there is work, then we can work to support ourselves."

While Thai regulations stipulate the minimum daily wage for workers, they do not guarantee minimum income per month. This means that even when workers are legally employed, many are unable to cover their minimum monthly expenses.

From the interviews we conducted, we heard stories of workers unable to make ends meet. Many had no choice but to go into debt. Moreover, working for more than one employer to fill their financial gap is not legally possible, since migrant workers are only allowed to have one employer at a time.

Another key finding from our study is that there is a significant gender pay gap across all four sectors. On average, women earn nearly one-third of the amount their male counterparts are paid. Women still earn approximately 3,000 baht less per month than men.

Some 80% of surveyed women reported they are paid less than the monthly equivalent of the daily minimum wage, compared to 38% of men. In the less formalised sectors such as pre-processing, where verbal contracts, irregular working hours and piece-rate payments are common, women are paid 41% less than men. Women are also more likely to face precarious employment, and to have limited maternity rights and childcare options.

One pregnant seafood worker recounted that she had to quit work during the pregnancy. She had to sell her motorcycle to gather enough money to cover the fees needed for transportation to a local health facility for the birth. She explained: "Normal birth giving costs a bit over 10,000 baht but if I need surgery, I will not have enough money. I will probably have to borrow money from a friend." Her story is not uncommon.

With the Thai seafood industry coming under increasing scrutiny in recent years, there have been some improvements, particularly for workers in the more export-oriented processing factory and fishing sectors.

Yet low wages and irregular employment remain an issue across the entire industry and particularly in the more informal sectors. Meanwhile, achieving a decent living wage that is sufficient for workers to provide for themselves and their families remains a distant dream.

More must be done to make the Thai seafood industry fairer to workers. Despite unprecedented challenges, Covid-19 presents an opportunity to build back better, but all the powerful actors seem to be forgetting the most vulnerable workers in global seafood supply chains. This is unacceptable and requires urgent attention from all involved.

The Thai government must mandate and support the industry in its transition towards formality, including stipulating a monthly minimum wage rate and written contracts. The government must also, as a matter of urgency, provide all workers with equal and free access to a full course of Covid-19 vaccines.

Employers in the Thai seafood industry must ensure that all workers are paid enough to live on, according to a monthly minimum wage rate. Workers should also have written contracts, be offered maternity support, and be provided with protective equipment and support during the pandemic.

Global food brands and retailers can support these changes by only purchasing from suppliers who are systematically improving in terms of wages and working conditions.

Considering the booming business at major seafood exporters and global retailers, even during the pandemic, private companies should be able to implement these measures even without regulations forcing them to do so. This global crisis is a perfect time for these businesses to prove that they are as ethical as their corporate social responsibility policies claim to be.

Nattaya Petcharat is representative of the CSO Coalition for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood in Thailand.

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