Stain of child labour
The outcry from the seafood industry and the Labour Ministry following the release of a PBS documentary on the use of child migrant labour in the industry is giving me a case of deja vu.
Four years ago, when the Solidarity Center, a Washington-based labour group, released a report entitled "True Cost of Shrimp", seafood industrialists and state authorities reacted similarly, vehemently denying allegations of children being employed as workers.
The report contained interviews with labourers in the shrimp-processing industry in Thailand and Bangladesh and found child labour, human trafficking, debt bondage and forced labour as well as a failure to pay promised wages were prevalent in both countries.
Despite state and industry denials, the report led Washington to list Thailand, the top exporter of shrimp to the United States, on its Tier 2 Watch List for Human Trafficking, where it remains to this day.
Shrimp exporters and the Thai government are now praying that the PBS report, which was broadcast last month, will not lead to the downgrading of Thailand from Tier 2 to Tier 3, which would put the country at risk of facing US sanctions.
It fact, it's not difficult to find out if child labour exists in the Thai shrimp industry. Just a 40-minute drive from Bangkok lies Samut Sakhon, a seafood processing hub, where one can easily find clues about the plight of young migrants from Myanmar toiling in the seafood factories.
I went there recently and, with the help of the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation, a Samut Sakhon-based non-profit organisation helping Myanmar workers, I had a chance to interview some Myanmar teenagers who work at primary seafood processing plants or frozen factories.
Although all of these youngsters claimed they were above the age of 15, most of them said they had been working in seafood factories since they were 13 or younger.
Some of them work the night shift, while others work more than eight hours a day. Under Thai labour law, employment of children under 15 years of age is illegal, but the law allows employers to hire teenagers aged between 15 to 18. Even then, employers have to comply with the Labour Protection Act, which bars children from working between 10pm and 6am and from doing dangerous work.
I also visited a large shrimp market in Samut Sakhon. There I saw about a dozen Myanmar children, aged around 10-12, busying peeling shrimp, carrying fully loaded shrimp baskets or cleaning equipment. Seeing the children working at the big market on Rama II Road was quite unexpected. I thought underage workers would be working in a closed compound as employers would want to keep them away from outsiders who might report such illegal employment to authorities.
I tried to talk to the children who were working, but they wouldn't say anything and ran back into the factory.
My conversations with the young Myanmar workers and what I saw at Samut Sakhon shrimp market might be insufficient to conclude that the use of child labour exists in the Thai seafood industry.
But it definitely points to a situation that would be worth investigating by labour authorities.
A senior labour official told me that the ministry was aware of the problem, but with less than 700 labour inspectors, who have to inspect hundreds of thousands of workplaces across the country, it was impossible for them to deal with the child labour problem effectively.
The official added that many migrant labourers lie about their age, making them eligible to obtain work permits which can be issued to migrant workers over 18 years of age.
The seafood operators, meanwhile, said primary seafood processing premises are the prime suspects in illegal child labour employment, not the big factories, which they say always strictly follow labour regulations.
Allegations about the use of child labour in the Thai seafood industry have been plaguing the government and the shrimp industry for some time, and they will continue to haunt them if they fail to eliminate child labour.
They should at least try to prove that they are taking the matter seriously, and not just reacting only when our shrimp shipments are at risk of boycott.
The fear of economic loss caused by a boycott alone will not help us achieve the goal of being child labour-free. What we need is for the industry and the government to truly understand that the rights of children must be protected, no matter what nationality they are.
Kultida Samabuddhi is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post.