LONDON - Migrants processing Thai chicken for its biggest export market, Europe, face widespread abuse by their employers, partly because foreign auditors have focused on food safety rather than workers' conditions, researchers said on Wednesday.
Chicken is set to become the world's most consumed meat, within the next five years, overtaking pork.
Its increasing popularity is a boon to major poultry suppliers like Thailand, which shipped about 270,000 tonnes of processed chicken to the European Union in 2014, according to Swedwatch, which monitors the impact of Swedish companies on the environment and human rights.
In a joint study with Finnwatch, the group found that factory workers from Cambodia and Myanmar are exploited by brokers and employers who withhold their passports and charge excessive recruitment fees.
"Those together put the migrant workers in a very vulnerable situation", said Swedwatch researcher Kalle Bergbom, who helped compile the report based on interviews with 98 migrant workers.
"Lots of these testimonies are indicators of trafficking for labour exploitation according to the ILO (International Labour Organisation)", Mr Bergbom said.
Swedwatch-Finnwatch report: Workers 'exploited by employers and recruitment agents'
Many workers reported being verbally and physically abused by supervisors, who hide any malpractice during official audits, Mr Bergbom added.
Worker complaints, company responses
A total of 48 workers from Cambodia and Myanmar were interviewed for the report at a pair of CP Foods Plc factories in Saraburi province and the Min Buri section of Bangkok.
Their complaints included recruitment fees that were "extortionately" high, putting them into a debt-bondage situation; and intimidation, poor quality work and bad behaviour by translators.
In an emailed response to the report writers, CP stopped using recruters in April and are now directly employed by the company.
"Because this policy was issued fairly recently, many workers are still not aware of these new practices. The company will focus more on communicating these new policies and practices, as well as benefits, welfare and labour rights to all workers," management said.
The company also promised to monitor and, if necessary, discipline translators.
At a processing plant run for Centaco Group/Sky Food Co, 14 Myanmar migrant workers were queried, all of whom work as subcontractors from a recruitment firm.
The too complained of "extortionist" recruitment fees, lack of health-insurance documentation, being forced to pay a deposit on their first 10 days of wages, child labour, withheld overtime, violence inflicted by supervisors, insufficient annual leave, salary cuts, substandard wages, management cover-ups, deportation of pregnant workers, forced overtime, and an inactive welfare committee.
In its e-mailed response, the company denied charging recruitment fees, salary deposits, salary cuts, or firing and deporting pregnant workers. It blamed the contractor for not supply social security and health insurance cards, said it pays more than the legal minimum wage, was unaware of any child labour, and promised to monitor annual leave.
At Laemthong Poultry Co, where 20 foreign workers were interviewed at two factories, migrants complained of withheld overtime, lacking health insurance, and child labour.
The company, its emailed reply, said "appropriate overtime working hours are considered by (the) supervisor", that it complied with legal requirements for insurance, and simply stated that the law prohibits children under age 18 from being hired.
Swedish poultry buyers blamed
Mr Bergbom blamed Swedish importers and wholesalers for focussing more on ensuring food safety requirements were met, than on checking workers' conditions.
Swedwatch also said the Swedish authorities, in their procurement of food, had failed to recognise the risk of human rights abuses in the food sector.
"This means that children and adults in Sweden's public institutions such as schools, retirement homes and hospitals may be served poultry products produced by exploited migrants," it said.
"(Supervisors) would slow down the pace of work, they would be a lot softer in their attitudes towards the worker. It shows that they're trying to cover up any possible problems during official audits," Mr Bergbom said.
"That of course makes it harder for foreign companies ... to get a true picture of the conditions."
Similar abuses in Thailand's seafood sector led the US State Department to downgrade the country in 2014 in the Trafficking in Persons report, an annual ranking of nations by their efforts to combat human trafficking.
The European Union threatened earlier this year to ban Thai seafood imports if Thailand failed to adopt adequate measures against slave labour and illegal fishing. A decision is expected within five weeks.