Fix migrant labour rules

Fix migrant labour rules

Thailand's efforts to clear its name as a hub of forced and slave labour received a double blow this week.The first came from a report by global food giant Nestle on endemic forced and slave labour abuse in the Thai fishing industry. Immediately afterwards, two corporate watchdogs -- Swedwatch and Finnwatch -- released a joint study on widespread labour abuse in the chicken processing industry, reported worldwide by the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Despite the government's concerted efforts to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery, these two latest reports show the problems remain immense. Subsequently, the risk that seafood products from Thailand will be boycotted by the US and Europe remains dangerously high.

In response to the damaging reports, government spokesman Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd insisted the government needs time to tackle the long-accumulated labour problems in the seafood sector. He also described the guilty operators as just "some" who had slipped out of state surveillance. The dismissal of such serious allegations -- and his suggestion that watchdogs report information on crimes to the authorities --  sends the world the wrong message.

The government should welcome those reports and initiate efforts to work with watchdog groups to indict wrongful operators. Taking proactive measures such as this would show the world Thailand is serious about tackling human trafficking and forced labour. Being defensive will not. 

Nestle provides a good example in this respect. When it faced a class-action lawsuit by US consumers for using seafood tainted by slave labour in its pet food products, it did not deny responsibility. Instead, the company investigated its seafood suppliers, and not even using its own staff, but with labour rights organisation Verite to ensure transparency.

The findings are nothing new; the seafood suppliers in Thailand largely use migrant workers, who are sometimes victims of human trafficking and forced labour, to catch and process fish for Nestle products.

By confronting the truth, and by admitting the problem is so endemic that other companies sourcing seafood in Thailand face the same risk, and by promising to eliminate forced labour in the Nestle supply chain, the global food giant has retained its consumers' confidence and prevented itself from being superseded by competitors.

Meanwhile, the study on the poultry industry names the companies that exploit migrant workers, keep them in debt bondage, and confiscate their legal documents. The report also has information on companies which do not do these things. If the government does not trust the findings, it can launch its own investigation, preferably by a neutral body. Leaving the guilty companies named by Swedwatch and Finnwatch intact will hurt Thailand's reputation further.

The government has argued the studies were done before stricter labour and fishery regulations took effect. To prove this assertion true, it needs a review by a reliable organisation to gauge how effective the government's anti-human trafficking policies are, now that they are in place.

The government also needs to fix its closed and rigid labour registration system. Red tape and a narrow time frame for registration and nationality verification each year force migrants and employers to pay brokers to oil the system. Workers end up in debt bondage; their legal documents are confiscated to prevent them from fleeing.  

Very few types of work allow migrant workers, and these prohibit them from changing jobs and give few welfare benefits. With few advantages to being a legal worker, many stay underground, making them more vulnerable to abuse. Apart from regulating certain industries, these laws need to be fixed. If not, the exploitation of migrant labour will never go away.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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