Activist urges EU to rethink approach

Activist urges EU to rethink approach

Mr Hall receives flowers from supporters as he turns up at the Phra Khanong Provincial Court on Oct 29 last year. The court later threw out a defamation lawsuit filed against him by the fruit-processing giant Natural Fruit Co over his report on labour abuse in the Thai food industry. (Bangkok Post file photo)
Mr Hall receives flowers from supporters as he turns up at the Phra Khanong Provincial Court on Oct 29 last year. The court later threw out a defamation lawsuit filed against him by the fruit-processing giant Natural Fruit Co over his report on labour abuse in the Thai food industry. (Bangkok Post file photo)

European Union governments and citizens should take action to ensure the money they are injecting into a UN programme to fight slave labour in Thailand is well spent, urged an activist.

Andy Hall, a British human rights defender and a migrant worker specialist based in Thailand, tweeted shortly on Monday after the AP report on slave labour in the seafood industry was published.  

He cited as an example the International Labour Organization's GLP (Good Labour Practices) programme funded by the US Department of Labour from 2011 to 2015 and focusing on seafood factories, peeling sheds and farms, as well as fishing boats, saying it "fundamentally failed".

"Thai seafood primary processing facilities (peeling sheds) remain another world, often devoid of rule of law/basic respect for human rights.

"The EU is now pumping millions of taxpayers' euros into the new ILO GLP programme to address Thai seafood slavery. EU citizens, taxpayers, consumers, buyers, unions and civil society groups must hold the EU and ILO accountable to deliver this time and effective programme by the UN's tripartite labour agency that empowers migrant workers and all workers for change, and not the bureaucratic targetless employer and government focused unmeasured mess of the past," he wrote.

The ILO must publicly acknowledge, learn and be held accountable for its past weaknesses and failure to implement a successful GLP programme if the second phase of the GLP programme is to learn and move forward properly, he wrote.

In his view, a key obstacle to the programme's success is inadequate representation of workers.

"The MWRN attended ILO's GLP main task force meeting last week. However, it was more of the poorly planned, confused thinking as before. Employer, government and ILO led, worker participation severely lacking.

Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) is a membership based organisation for migrant workers from Myanmar residing and working mainly in Thailand. 

"What the ILO should add is the element of tripartite negotiation between workers, employers and governments," Mr Hall wrote.

The previous phase of GLP essentially excluded migrant workers and trade unions and didn't focus adequately on raising workers awareness of their basic human and labour rights and promoting social dialogue between workers and employers, he added.

Mr Hall also criticised the ILO's solutions, saying they were "confusing".

"I often felt ILO GLP made implementation more distracting than beneficial by introducing another level of confusing voluntary compliance at a very academic and removed theoretical level to companies and in what is already a full marketplace of codes of practice and audit systems.

"What's worse, the ILO GLP was used clearly as a propaganda tool by some in the industry and governments, a smokescreen to show cooperation and compliance with international community's wishes in something that wasn't working or clearly isn't having impact."

On Thailand, Mr Hall said while there was increasing evidence the Thai seafood industry was aware of the need to change, there were limitations to capacities and commitment visible from major stakeholders

"Thailand must acknowledge/respond to today's major AP seafood slavery story with more deep reflection and acknowledgement that slavery remains systematic problem in shrimp/seafood supply chains," he wrote.

"Thai Union, the major target of AP story, must be commended for belatedly moving seafood primary processing in house."

The MWRN has committed to working with Thai Union from Jan 1 next year on a major new project to educate and empower migrant workers in its main seafood-processing export facilities through full access and transparent dialogue, he wrote.

"To genuinely address Thailand's migration chaos/slavery, rule of law must be strengthened, workers empowered and social dialogue created," he wrote.

He added the Thai industry is wealthy and capable enough to make change itself sustainably in migrant worker conditions if committed.

Before the EU agreed to fund the new expensive ILO GLP programme, the Thai seafood industry has already developed their own industry-funded GLP.

"The programme was and is underway. The ILO entry into the marketplace confused the industry at that time too.

"It's very unclear what the ILO can actually add right now in the Thai seafood sector for migrant workers, and certainly the ILO track record in adding proven and documented value in seafood industry is seriously under doubt and must now be proven before a lot of EU taxpayer money is brought in here.

"What did the last four years and millions of dollars of taxpayers' money bring for seafood sector workers through the ILO GLP and did the industry move forward? Statistics? Indicators of their programme? How effective are ILO programmes and money spent compared with other actor programmes, including NGOs, INGOs, CBOs, industry action itself? Has the ILO really assisted?"

If the EU is to fund the GLP, it must be a programme that is built on genuine ILO tripartite principles and must prove this too empowered migrant workers and communities with higher worker standards, he concluded.

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