Thai Shrimp Industry Exploits Workers to Whet Global Appetite for Cheap Shrimp
On Thursday, September 20, 2012, the USA Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on its evening news show, the PBS News Hour, aired an eight-minute segment titled “Thai Shrimp Industry Exploits Workers to Whet Global Appetite for Cheap Shrimp”. A MacNeil/Lehrer Production, the show has approximately one million nightly viewers at 354 member stations. The full transcript of the show appears below and you can watch the entire video (preceded by a 20-second advertisement) by clicking on the link in the source below.
Summary: The world, especially the USA, wants cheap shrimp. For the $1 billion plus shrimping industry in Thailand, fulfilling this desire comes at the expense of workers. Special correspondent Steve Sapienza reports on the abusive working conditions in the Thai shrimping industry, including corruption, human trafficking and violence.
Judy Woodruff (one of the anchors on the PBS News Hour): The demand for cheap shrimp has sparked abuses in Thailand’s growing industry. Americans consume more imported shrimp from Thailand than any other country.
Our report is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It comes from special correspondent Steve Sapienza in Thailand.
Steve Sapienza: Thailand is the source of one-third of all shrimp imported by the USA each year, and the low price has fueled a growing appetite for it.
The Thai shrimp industry is thriving. Hundreds of factories, large and small, will ship over 200,000 tons of shrimp to the USA this year, generating over $1 billion in income.
But there’s a darker side to the business here, one that includes human trafficking, corruption and violence against workers.
Migrants from nearby Burma are the lifeblood of the Thai shrimp industry. Most Thais won’t work for the low wages paid by the shrimp companies. So, today, as many as 400,000 Burmese migrants work in Samut Sakhon, where 40 percent of Thailand’s shrimp are peeled and frozen for export. Only 70,000 workers are legally registered.
Sompong Sakaew (representing the Labor Rights Promotion Network, through translator): There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 factories, 300 or 400 of which are not registered with the government.
Steve Sapienza: Thai labor activist Sompong Sakaew says the most severe abuses occur in the network of unregistered, almost invisible peeling sheds that supply shrimp to larger factories for export to the USA
Sompong Sakaew (through translator): The small factory owners know that most of their workers are undocumented, so they can control the work force however they want, such as locking workers in until they finish their work. There are also teenagers between 12 and 17 years old in the work force.
Ko Ngwe Htay (a Burmese migrant worker, through translator): We were made to work from 3:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. We earned about $10 a day. Our hands were like machines.
Steve Sapienza: Like most migrants, Ko Ngwe Htay was eager to leave Burma, where jobs are scarce and salaries very low. The father of five easily found a labor broker and paid in advance for a job in Thailand.
Sompong Sakaew (through translator): I was smuggled in. My village had burned down. We had nothing to get by. We had some gold that we had sold, and we used that to get here.
Steve Sapienza: When Ko Ngwe’s family reached Thailand and began work, the peeling shed owner trapped them in debt.
Ko Ngwe Htay (through translator): We had to pay for everything ourselves, for meals, for housing. We didn’t earn a daily wage.
We earned based on how many kilograms of shrimp we peeled. If we finished, for example, 30 kilos, we only got paid for 20 kilos.
Steve Sapienza: Ko Ngwe’s 16-year-old daughter was the fastest shrimp peeler in the shed, a distinction that earned her no favor with the owner.
Thazin Mon Htay (a former shrimp peeler, through translator): My hands were so painful that I could not even put on the gloves. I said I would go to the clinic and then take only one day off.
But she, the owner, cursed me. And then she called her brother and threatened me. She said, if I do not work, she will lock me up with her brother in a room.
Steve Sapienza: After six months, Ko Ngwe managed to call relatives, who bought his family’s freedom from the factory owner. He still lives in Thailand, now working to pay back his relatives in Burma.
Sompong Sakaew (through translator): Police are not willing to cooperate, and certain laws regarding exploitation and human trafficking are loosely enforced.
The brokers may be arrested, but their employers and factory owners are able to bail them out of jail.
Andy Hall (a researcher at Thailand’s Mahidol University, where he works on migrant labor issues): If you look at the cost of shrimp, obviously, it’s very, very cheap. And that comes from the exploitation which is inherent in the system in Thailand.
I think the industry, as a whole, is not regulated properly. And I don’t think there is enough traceability in where the shrimp are coming from, and that’s where the exploitation comes in.
Steve Sapienza: The spokesman for the Thai Frozen Food Association, Arthon Piboonthanapatana, insists the shrimp industry supply chain is not tainted by labor violations.
Can you guarantee to USA consumers that the shrimp that is produced here in Thailand and ends up on their plates is free from child labor and also exploitive labor practices?
Arthon Piboonthanapatana (TFFA): If the shrimp is from TFFA members, I can 100 percent guarantee this.
Steve Sapienza: Part of his guarantee rests on weekly inspections conducted by the TFFA at its member factories.
Arthon Piboonthanapatana: We are making unannounced visits to our members and also to all the suppliers at the moment. So if anyone get caught to be—to use child labor or to abuse the work force, they automatically get expelled from TFFA.
Steve Sapienza: But critics point out problems with the industry-led audits.
Andy Hall: We do know from speaking to workers that, often, when there’s audits in the factories, children will be sent home. Half of the work force who don’t have documents will be asked to stay home.
And, generally, when these audits happen, people know in advance that they are going to happen, and therefore the conditions are improved. We have heard that a lot, which suggests they are being deceived.
Steve Sapienza: So, after three years of doing these inspections almost every Friday...
Arthon Piboonthanapatana: Yes.
Steve Sapienza: ...You guys have found no violations....
Arthon Piboonthanapatana: No, no violations.
Steve Sapienza: No child laborers?
Arthon Piboonthanapatana: No.
Steve Sapienza:: No problems with passports being held from workers or workers being paid below minimum wage, anything like that?
Arthon Piboonthanapatana: No, no, no.
Andy Hall: So, they will look at the factories which are packaging and exporting where the conditions are reasonable. Most of these are big international companies are being audited. And they are. But nobody is looking where the shrimp come from.
Steve Sapienza: The Thai shrimp industry doesn’t allow independent third-party audits of its processing plants and peeling sheds. However, our own investigation, using a worker with a hidden camera, confirmed workplace violations in a peeling shed that supplies a top exporter of shrimp to the USA market.
Man (through translator): Processed shrimp from the factory are sent to the Thai Royal factory twice a day. I saw four children. They were about 15 years old. I think 20 out of the 50 workers did not have work permits.
Steve Sapienza: The lack of transparency in the Thai shrimp industry has contributed to Thailand’s poor human trafficking record.
For the third year in a row, Thailand has been placed on the USA State Department’s watch list for not showing evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking compared to the previous year.
Sompong Sakaew: (through translator): To a certain extent, the Thai government is serious about the matter, as they are heavily accused of human trafficking by the USA government.
To solve the problem, there needs to be a cooperation between factory owners, the government sector and NGOs. But there is an obstacle to the resolution due to the corruption of officials and bribery.
Steve Sapienza: Critics warn that, until the Thai shrimp industry opens its factories to independent audits, the shrimp it exports will likely remain tainted by human trafficking.
Daniel Gruenberg's Rebuttal
In Thailand, Daniel Gruenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org), CEO of Sea Garden Foods, Co., Ltd., is the exclusive distributor of Sureerath Farm’s organic shrimp products. Sea Garden Foods is involved in all areas of the Thai seafood industry from production issues to innovative product development. Gruenberg says:
I was a bit alarmed by the PBS report on the Thai shrimp industry. I personally know Mr. Arthon, the Thai Frozen Foods Association person interviewed in the PBS show, and he is one of the champions of anti-child labor practices in Thailand, yet the report took his comments out of context and made it look like he was whitewashing the whole situation.
The shrimp processing plants represent a real opportunity for young Burmese workers to make what is good money for them. You cannot judge exploitation based on costs in Western nations. If passports are being withheld and abuses are occurring, I can assure you that the numerous audits by large Western buyers would not allow these things to continue at any of the major plants.
The mostly female Burmese workers are quite small due to genetics and nutrition factors. If you ask a group of Americans how old a 23-year-old Burmese woman is, they would probably say between 14 and 18. What are the allegations of “young” workers in the PBS show based on? Birth certificates? Of course not, they just LOOK young. I work with these plants daily, and I can tell you that the workers are always smiling and happy and very well taken care of. They are paid more than the minimum wage set for Thai workers. Mr. Arthon has told me that he doesn’t mind paying over minimum wage to keep his workers happy and productive. In fact, if he didn’t pay higher than minimum wage he said he couldn’t retain his workers. The factory owner takes frequent trips to Burma to visit with local Burmese monks to arrange special festivities for the Burmese workers and to treat his workers right and keep them productive.
I don’t deny that some labor abuses may occur in a few very small processing plants that are inherently difficult to police, but I do know that the workers that I see daily in the major plants are not child slaves. The workers that I see are grateful for the opportunity to be able to earn money and support their families back in Myanmar.
The problem is that there is a clear political agenda behind these allegations. To illustrate, AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, sent a large contingent to Thailand to inspect Thai labor practices, something clearly beyond its chartered mission, which smacks of protectionism by USA based parties that stand to benefit from a poor image of Thai products. Another problem stems from a peculiarity of Thai culture: the Thais are reluctant to be proactive in their own defense. I always advise them to be more aggressive when facing an attack, but it goes against their strong aversion to any kind of confrontation, and it comes across as indifference when viewed in Western cultural context. Finally, I want to point out that these large factories depend on the likes of Walmart and Costco in the USA and Aldi and Migros in Europe for their main business. It is in their own best interest to avoid any kind of labor issue in order to keep these large, important clients. One must carefully analyze the agenda of each party when viewing a news issue like the one that appeared on PBS in the United States.
Comments from PBS’s Website
As a result PBS video (above) on labor abuses in the Thai shrimp processing industry, the following comments appeared its website.
John: Maybe we should clean up the labor issues here in the USA before we start telling everyone else to clean up theirs. I recently read an article about labor abuses in Louisiana’s seafood business. It was about a company that supplied Walmart.
AJS: After viewing the PBS report, I immediately checked the package of shrimp that I always keep on hand in my freezer. Since I’m in Texas, right on the Gulf of Mexico, I had assumed that I had purchased Gulf shrimp, but no, it was from Thailand, marketed by a large supermarket chain that ironically has a current advertising campaign about buying local. I think USA shrimp retailers have some responsibility for cleaning up foreign labor abuse problems, and I let my supermarket know my thoughts—and will make sure I buy only Gulf shrimp in future.
Hannah Mira: First of all, while there are many occasions on which I feel proud of my country, I must admit that watching the PBS video made me embarrassed to be an American. I’ve been a vegetarian for over eleven years, and I don’t even eat shrimp, but I’m still embarrassed to be part of a country that is one of the direct causes of the exploitation of these workers.
One aspect of the story that I found interesting was that the majority of workers were not Thais, but rather Burmese migrants—some of them children—who were smuggled across Thailand’s borders and into the shrimp processing plants. What I really find appalling is that three to four hundred of these horrendous plants are virtually invisible to the government simply because no one is enforcing registration rules. These invisible processing plants result in invisible workers’ rights. The claim that Secretary-General of the Thai Frozen Food Association (TFFA) Arthon Piboonthanapatana made about finding absolutely no violations in working conditions on his weekly inspections is clearly an unjustifiable generalization. I wonder what he would say about the fact that Thailand’s shrimp factories send the children and undocumented workers home during the inspections. Whether Piboonthanapatana is aware of this or not, it’s evident that the lack of communication between the plants, the TFFA and the Thai government is only worsening the problem of worker exploitation.
I am aware that Thailand isn’t the only country in which the USA economically supports industries with human trafficking and exploitation records. But this scenario doesn’t sound all that difficult to fix. I think that the simplest solution would be to significantly cut down on shrimp consumption. I realize that many Americans would be opposed to this for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps it would be worth the sacrifice. By creating such high demand for shrimp, how are injured people like Ko Ngwe Htay and his daughter supposed to go on working from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m. for a mere ten dollars a day? In the USA, it’s truly a matter of how much it will take to personally touch us enough to be willing to change our shrimp eating habits. I know that is no easy task.
Teel27: I don’t believe a word of this nonsense—waiter I’ll have another shrimp cocktail please.
Sue: Hi Tteel27, ignorance is bliss. Enjoy your cheap, peeled shrimp. In the PBS video, you can see your shrimp on the cement floor next to the kids’ feet [at minutes 1:36 and 4:56].
Tom Mazzetta's Comments from Seafood.com
As a result of the PBS story on labor abuses in the Thai shrimp processing industry, Seafood.com, an online, subscription-based, fisheries news service, received the following letter from Tom Mazzetta, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, of Mazzetta Company. Mazzetta, which has many suppliers in Thailand, was recently honored by the USA State Department for its efforts to combat child labor in the global shrimp peeling industry.
In the letter, Mazzetta said:
On Thursday, September 20, 2012, PBS News broadcast a story concerning human rights and child labor abuses at shrimp production facilities in Thailand. The story focused on abuses in a network of unregistered peeling sheds that employ undocumented migrant workers from Burma that supply shrimp to large processing plants in Thailand.
This is not the first time we have been made aware of these allegations. The USA State Department has for three years singled out the Thai shrimp industry as perpetuating trafficking and labor abuses in their annual Trafficking in Persons Report. We take these allegations extremely seriously.
Mazzetta Company ensures that our supply chain is free of labor abuses, and we have consistently maintained that it is unproductive to condemn the entire Thai industry. Instead, we have advocated that those bringing allegations forward name specific companies involved in an effort to give responsible USA shrimp importers something tangible to act on. In this case, the PBS investigation did just that. Using a worker with a hidden camera, PBS uncovered child labor in a peeling shed that the worker claimed was sent to one of Thailand’s largest shrimp companies, Thai Royal.
This was extremely disappointing news to me because for over a decade Thai Royal has been among Mazzetta Company’s shrimp suppliers. From the beginning of our relationship, they were well aware of our policies regarding worker’s rights and quality control. Our internal quality specifications require that all overseas suppliers use only head-on shrimp from known sources with complete traceability back to the pond and an explicit requirement that forbids the use of peeling sheds. In light of information uncovered by the PBS investigation, we will not conduct further business with Thai Royal until they can adequately address these allegations and assure us that our specifications are being met.
Let me be unequivocally clear, Mazzetta Company will not tolerate labor abuses or modern day slavery in our supply chain. Our products are as much about the people involved and the means by which they reach the marketplace, as the products themselves. Our overseas suppliers know with great certainty that we do not purchase products from unregistered companies. We do not purchase products from companies who employ undocumented workers or child labor, and we do not purchase products without full traceability. These are conditions of doing business with Mazzetta Company and they are not negotiable.
As many of you may know, the USA State Department recently recognized Mazzetta Company for our leadership in the effort to rid global seafood supply chains of forced labor. Our commitment in this regard is unwavering. We will continue to monitor this situation and offer our full support to governments, NGOs and other industry leaders who are working to eradicate child labor, human trafficking and forced labor from global supply chains.
Information: Tom Mazzetta, Mazzetta Company, LLC, P.O. Box 1126, Highland Park, Illinois 60035, USA (phone 1-847-433-1150, fax 1-847-433-8973, email email@example.com, webpage http://www.mazzetta.com).
Dr. Stephen Newman's Comments from Seafood Source
As a result of the PBS story on labor abuses in the Thai shrimp processing industry, Seafood Source, a free, online news service on the seafood business, posted the following report by Steven Newman (firstname.lastname@example.org), a shrimp farming consultant who has audited shrimp processing plants in Thailand for the Global Aquaculture Alliance.
Myanmar, formerly named Burma, is Thailand’s neighbor. It is a poor country with little opportunity for gainful employment for many of its people, so Thailand has become a land of opportunity for many Burmese. Unfortunately just like everywhere else in the world, including the USA, these opportunities can be a double-edged sword for Burmese immigrants. This has been reported before and is not new news.
Many anti-aquaculture activist organizations point to this as being typical and a reason why shrimp farming is bad. The most extreme would have us believe that this practice is the norm and that we all should share some collective guilt and moral responsibility and respond by not buying the shrimp.
Several years ago, I audited a number of processing plants in Thailand for compliance with NGO standards. Some things that I observed, while perhaps not universally true, were that Burmese workers were more willing to work for minimum wage and to do piece work than Thai workers. Management usually told me that the Burmese were better, more responsible workers. In a number of instances, partly because of the regulations that govern the hiring of alien workers, the Burmese worked for companies that dealt with the immigration paperwork, but were paid by the processing plants or by third parties called “peeling sheds” that then sold the shrimp to the processing plants. I (and others) saw this as a problem. When I pushed to find out if the processing plants actually audited the third parties, I was typically told that that was the government’s responsibility. On a few occasions though, I was able to show that these workers were in fact not being paid minimum wages. I know that many times I was probably not told the truth. The scope of the audit simply did not allow the time to pull apart all the pieces to show that abuses were occurring. The presence of the peeling sheds was deemed critical to how the business operated. However, unless they are scrupulously audited on a regular basis, there is very little reason to believe that they would not take advantage of their workers. This does not mean that it is a universal problem and that it is not a solvable problem.
The issue is cultural to a large extent, and until one understands the big picture, there is not likely to be a solution that satisfies all parties. As was noted, most of the big processing plants are audited by a variety of third parties and government agencies. When audits are announced, the processing plants prepare for them. Announced audits may work well in first world countries, but in most of the rest of the world this is naïve and little more than an invitation to be misled. Of course, some companies don’t change anything when they hear of an audit in advance, but others allow less than honest individuals to paint a picture that ensures that they appear to be compliant.
I personally have no idea how wide spread labor abuses are. From what I saw in the dozen or so plants that I audited, the owners were aware of the potential for abuse, and while they knew that they might be able to pay less to Burmese workers, they appeared to make an honest effort to ensure that this did not occur. Paying middlemen at peeling sheds is a system that makes it easy for abuses to occur and allows the big processing plants to say that it operates legally and that the government regulates them.
The ultimate responsibility for ensuring that abuses do not occur is in the hands of those who channel these products into the market place. Relying on third parties, whether NGOs or government agencies is a bad idea. Announced, profit motivated audits are not going to be as effective as audits conducted by those that have the most to lose should abuses occur. If a reporter can unearth these abuses then certainly others can as well. Doing away with peeling sheds would seem to be one solution, although it may not be in the best interests of the Burmese who are willing to take jobs that locals will not. In Thailand, I often asked processing plants how I could be sure that the peeling sheds were paying the workers at least the minimum wage required by law. Most times I was told that there were controls in place to ensure it. It seems, based on a number of reports to the contrary, that the controls are not always adequate.
Bangkok Post Urges Processors to Clean Up Labor Problems
On October 13, 2012, an editorial in the Bangkok Post encouraged shrimp processors in Thailand to clean up their labor problems. Here is that editorial in its entirety:”
“Thailand is the world’s leading food exporting country not only because of the country’s natural abundance, but also because the food produced here is cheaper than that of other countries. This is also true with the 100-billion-baht shrimp export industry which is now facing allegations of using child migrant labor and other exploitative labor practices to keep Thai shrimp cheaper than those of its competitors.”
“The shrimp industry has come under severe scrutiny after the broadcast of a documentary by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States last month. In the documentary which focuses on the situation in Samut Sakhon province, migrant workers talk of dreadful work conditions. Many workers are minors, working long hours, and underpaid. The documentary also touches on human trafficking, debt bondage, and police extortion.”
“As if on cue, the authorities and major shrimp exporters in Samut Sakhon immediately came out to deny the PBS report. This is unwise. Instead of going on the defensive, Samut Sakhon, as the centre of the shrimp industry, must come up with effective measures to regulate the shrimp industry to keep the loyalty of its USA market, which is the industry’s biggest customer.”
There is no use denying that child labor exists in this industry. It may not be a widespread phenomenon. But it does exist when it should not at all.”
“Abusive work conditions may not exist in large seafood factories. But the same thing cannot be said about the hundreds of small peeling sheds which supply the shrimp to those large factories.”
“According to official records, only 150 out of 700 primary seafood operators are registered with the Department of Fisheries.”
“The use of minors in the shrimp industry is just the latest international concern about the abusive treatment of migrant workers in Thailand. And it is among the easiest to solve. If the problem stems from a lack of regulation in the shrimp industry, then set up a proper regulatory system.”
“The law also requires that every child in the country, Thai or non-Thai, must receive a free compulsory education. If Samut Sakhon can show that it can provide education to all migrant children, then the child labor allegation will quickly go away.”
“It won’t be as easy with other problems plaguing the fishing sector, however. They include human trafficking, slave labor on fishing boats, physical abuse, underpayment, confiscation of legal documents, and the perennial problem of police extortion. It is Thailand’s inability to provide proof of any increase in efforts to solve these problems that has persuaded the USA government to place Thailand on the Tier 2 Watch List for three consecutive years. If Thailand sinks to Tier 3, the country risks facing a range of boycott measures from the USA.”
“At the heart of the maltreatment of migrant workers from Myanmar is ethnic prejudice. It is what makes Thais view migrant workers as a threat to national security. It is also what makes society turn a blind eye to the labor abuses and extortion faced by migrant workers.”
“If the authorities cannot change their mindset to improve the working conditions and welfare of migrant workers, they must do so for the country’s self-interest at least. Nowadays, the customer’s decision on whether to buy a product is increasingly influenced by rights concerns. If Thailand wants to retain its export markets overseas, fisheries authorities and the export industry must shape up before it’s too late.”
PBS Should Have Included The Following Information in Its Story
Months before the story of labor abuses in Thailand’s shrimp processing industry appeared on USA PBS TV, the Thai Labor Ministry had already cracking down on the Phatthana Seafood Factory in Songkhla Province. Phatthana, a global seafood supplier with clients that include the USA retail giant Walmart, is a subsidiary of the Thai conglomerate PTN Group. It employs about 600 Cambodian workers.
Allegations were raised that under the guise of providing a safety deposit service for workers’ passports, Phatthana was withholding passports, leading some desperate Cambodians to flee the premises without travel documents. After one inspection at its processing plant, when Phatthana declared there was no problem, Thai police were accused of beating and shaving the heads of some workers before extorting money from them and firing shots in the air to disperse a protest.
In a July 2012 letter to the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Thai Labor Ministry reported that the shrimp processor had breached at least three provisions of Thailand’s labor laws, including withholding workers’ passports and deducted fees from their salaries to pay a third-party recruitment firm.
The Ministry intervened in the situation followed strikes at the processing plant and months of pressure from civil society groups for government action after the Bangkok Post reported in January 2012 that workers felt they had been misled about conditions there by the Cambodian recruitment firm CDM Manpower. After the intervention, Phatthana began to correct the problems.
Andy Hall (above in the original PBS TV story), a foreign expert at Mahidol University’s Institute of Population and Social Research in Bangkok, said that since the Ministry intervention, conditions at the factory had significantly improved, although some concerns remained. He said, “I think the response has to be acknowledged, supported and praised because I think the response to the Phatthana case was better than we have seen in the past.”
Sum Chanpisey, a translator for Phatthana, said all the problems at the factory had now been resolved. “Everything had been solved since the Ministry of Labor, the Cambodian Embassy...and the factory intervened.”
Bangkok Post Looks Into Labor Problems
Kultida Samabuddhi, Deputy News Editor of the Bangkok Post, reports:
Four years ago, when the Solidarity Center, a Washington-based labor group, released a report entitled The 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 laborers in the shrimp-processing industry in Thailand and Bangladesh and found that child labor, human trafficking, debt bondage, forced labor and a failure to pay promised wages were prevalent in both countries.
Despite state and industry denials, the report led the USA Government to list Thailand on its Tier-2 Watch List for human trafficking, where it remains to this day.
Shrimp exporters and the Thai Government are now hoping that the USA PBS TV 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 USA sanctions.
In fact, it’s not difficult to find out if child labor 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 Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation, a Samut Sakhon-based non-profit organization helping Myanmar workers, I had a chance to interview some Myanmar teenagers who work at primary seafood processing plants.
Although all of these youngsters claimed they were over 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 labor law, employment of youths under 15 is illegal, but the law allows employers to hire teenagers between 15 and 18. Even then, employers have to comply with the Labor Protection Act, which bars children from working and from doing dangerous work.
I also visited a large shrimp market in Samut Sakhon. There, unexpectedly, I saw about a dozen Myanmar children, aged around 10-12, busying peeling shrimp and carrying fully loaded shrimp baskets. I thought underage workers would be working in a closed compound because their employers would want to keep them away from outsiders who might report their illegal activates.
I tried to talk to the children, but they wouldn’t say anything and ran back into the processing plant.
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 labor exists in the Thai seafood industry, but it definitely points to a situation that would be worth investigating by labor authorities.
A senior labor official told me that the ministry was aware of the problem, but with less than 700 labor inspectors, who have to inspect hundreds of thousands of workplaces across the country, it was impossible for them to deal with the child labor problem effectively. The official added that many migrant laborers lie about their age, making them eligible for work permits that are issued to migrant workers over 18 years of age.
The seafood operators said “peeling sheds” were the prime suspects in illegal child labor employment, not the big processing plants, which they say always follow labor regulations.
Allegations about the use of child labor 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 labor. 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 labor 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.
From Thailand, John Sackton Reports on the Labor Problems
One of the most dramatic developments during the GAA conference in Bangkok was the urgency with which both the USA Importers and Thai shrimp processors approached a potential crisis over abuses of child labor and trafficking in Thailand. In the closing remarks summarizing the GAA meeting, Travis Larkin highlighted the importance of resolving the labor abuse issue in Thailand and described the problem.
The abuses take place in the unregulated shrimp peeling sheds, which often employ migrants from Myanmar under potentially abusive conditions.
To get an update on the potential commercial crisis over labor issues in Thailand, the National Fishery Institute (NFI, a United States industry trade group representing the seafood industry) organized a discussion between the USA diplomatic mission in Bangkok and USA importers. That discussion revealed the following information:
The USA government is required by law to annually evaluate all countries on the extent to which they fail to eliminate human trafficking and child labor. Its Trafficking in Persons Report has three tiers. Tier-1 countries fully comply with the protections against abuse listed in the act. Tier-2 countries do not fully comply, but are making efforts to do so. Tier-3 countries, like Iran, Libya, North Korea and Kuwait, are know to have abusive practices and their governments make no attempt to correct them.
There is also something called the Tier-2 watch list. This is for countries that are listed as Tier-2, but have a significant problem that is not being adequately addressed or have failed to meet prior commitments to enforce laws against trafficking.
At the discussion, Judith Cefkin, the Deputy Chief of the USA Mission in Thailand, was reported to have said that Thailand was in danger of being reclassified as a Tier-3 country when the USA releases its next report in March 2013.
A number of USA importers reportedly stated that if Thailand were classified as a Tier-3 country, it and its major customers would not be able to continue purchasing shrimp from Thailand. Historically, the USA has been the largest buyer of Thai shrimp.
Two days later, NFI arranged a meeting between USA importers (about 40 attended the GAA meetings) and Thai shrimp processors and the Thai Frozen Food Association. At that meeting, it was reported that the USA side told the Thai processors that there was a real danger of the USA government acting to label the country as a labor abuser and that only action by the Thai government could avoid this from happening.
Thailand has labor laws that prohibit child labor and prohibit abusive practices such as debt bondage and trafficking. The problem is that the Thai Government has not taken sufficient steps and made resources available to enforce its existing laws. As a result, these practices continue to exist in shrimp peeling sheds, which can pop up and operate for a few months and then disappear. The peeling sheds employ migrant workers who do not speak the local language and do not have legal status in the country, so they are vulnerable to abuse. Thai law prohibits the confiscation of workers passports, debt bondage, garnishing wages, use of child labor and excessive overtime.
The USA side appealed to the Thai processors, saying that only their pressure on their government to act could prevent this potential disruption. At the same time, several importers in the room said that if the USA government labeled Thailand as a country that tolerates abusive labor practices, they would have to avoid purchasing from Thailand to protect their own brands and reputation.
The only solution, according to people who were at the meeting, was for the Thai government to demonstrate true enforcement of the laws on its books, including arrest and prosecution of those found to have engaged in trafficking or human rights labor violations. In her meeting with the importers, Judith Cefkin said that the USA Government felt Thailand had the capacity to police this abuse and enforce its own laws, but that it had not seen evidence it was willing to do so, either in terms of inspection resources, or arrest and prosecution of those who violated the law.
The USA importers urged their Thai business partners to understand that taking action was imperative. Promises, and laws on the books were not enough. They had to be vigorously enforced the laws against labor abuses.
For its part, the Thai Frozen Food Association fully agreed that this was a very dangerous situation and that the Thai government had to act to protect the economic interests of the country.
On November 2, 2012, one day after the NFI meeting with USA importers and Thai processors, the Thai Frozen Food Association, the Thai Shrimp Association and ten other regional shrimp associations, published an open letter in the Bangkok Post to Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister.
Here are excerpts from the open letter (lightly edited by Shrimp News):
There is a critical problem that needs the immediate attention of the government. The Thai seafood processing industry has been accused of employing child labor and engaging in human trafficking. The Royal Thai Government needs to address this issue forcefully to demonstrate our serious intention to eradicate the problem before the issue is exacerbated and detrimental measures imposed on our country. Associations listed hereunder pledge full cooperation in working with the government to resolve this problem.
Thai Frozen Food Association
Thai Shrimp Association
Thai Marine Shrimp Farmers Association
Thai Eastern Shrimp Association
Suratthani Shrimp Farmers Club
Krabi Shrimp Farmers Club
Songkhla Shrimp Farmers Club
Satul Shrimp Club
Pattani Shrimp Farmers Club
Chanthaburi Shrimp Farmers Club
Sustainable Trade Shrimp Farmers Club
Seafood.Com’s Video Report
On November 5, 2012, in a video report on Seafood.com, John Sackton spoke about the seriousness of the charges against Thailand and the importance of correcting them. Here are some excerpts from his report [You must be a subscriber to John’s website to view the video.]:
Excerpts from the Video: Both the Thai shrimp industry and USA shrimp importers are very strongly pushing the Thai government to take action to prevent any damage to Thailand’s international reputation in terms of labor abuses in the shrimp industry. Thailand has laws on the books that would—if enforced—prevent abuses of migrant workers and child labor. At a series of meeting last week in Thailand, the USA government, through its Deputy Chief of Mission, explained to importers that Thailand was close to being downgraded to a Tier-3 listing on labor abuses, a very negative rating and that would cause a number of USA buyers to re-evaluate their imports of Thai products. The shrimp industry has been pushing the shrimp industry to act on this for a long time. It’s important to remember that the seafood industry is united in condemning and pushing for an immediate end to any type of abusive labor practices. The use of illegal labor in shrimp peeling sheds is a clear abuse and has to be stopped. We can’t allow the seafood industry to be tagged with the criticisms of child labor in Thailand because the industry is in the forefront of trying to eradicate the problem. Unfortunately, one of the things that has happened is that the people who are opposed to shrimp farming and Asian exports have seized on the labor abuses to suggest that the shrimp industry is profiting from this situation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The USA importers at in the forefront of eradicating it, first by requiring that their suppliers do not use the Thai peeling sheds, and secondly looking toward getting some type of third-party audit of peeling sheds to make sure that these abuses are stamped out. In any event this is a very proactive response by the industry and hopefully it’s enough to nudge the Thai Government to a point where the USA Government won’t feel compelled to make any change in their status.
Red Lobster Urges Thailand to Clean Up Labor Abuses
Darden Restaurants, Inc., owner of the casual dining chain Red Lobster, one of the biggest buyers of shrimp in the world, is tracking the labor controversy in Thailand. Roger Bing, vice president of protein purchasing at Darden, said, "The labor allegations in Thailand are deeply concerning and must be addressed." Darden bills itself as a "leader in the seafood community" and "deplores any mistreatment of workers", said Bing. "We have clear and stringent guidelines for our suppliers requiring...[them] to be in full compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations, and we hope they can serve as an example for the Thai government.
" Bing declined to reveal the volume Darden buys from Thailand or what it would do if Thailand became classified as a Tier 3 nation by the USA government in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Others have said that a Tier 3 listing would likely result in some large buyers in the USA shifting purchases away from Thailand.
Bing said Darden is involved with its suppliers and industry organizations in the USA and Thailand to get the "industry and government in Thailand...to address these allegations." He is "pleased" that the leadership of the Thai seafood industry recently called on Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's prime minister, to renew her focus on eliminating any labor abuse problems. He added, "....The Thai seafood industry recently took out a full page ad in the Bangkok Post urging the Thai government to be aggressive in rooting out and prosecuting those who are found to have violated labor laws."
Athitaya Pukthaisong on the Reality of the
Farm Labor Situation in Thailand
Athitaya Pukthaisong runs a small, rural farm in northeastern Thailand that includes ten catfish ponds. When staffing the catfish operation, she had difficulty finding Thai workers who would show up regularly and carry out duties like feeding, pond maintenance and other farm tasks, so she hired three immigrants from Cambodia. Her experiences with hiring and managing the immigrants provide valuable insights into the reality of the farm labor situation in Thailand.
Since English is not her native language, Pat Salvatore, her husband, translated her thoughts into English.
She made the following points:
• The $10-per-day wage quoted by a Burmese migrant worker in the USA PBS TV show, is well above typical farm labor wages in Thailand. Normally versatile, skilled farm hands work an 8-to-9-hour day and earn around $6 for their efforts. The lowest skilled farm hands, familiar only with rice planting and harvesting, typically work for around $ 4.50 per day on a flat rate basis.
• I contacted immigration officials to find out what was needed to bring in three Cambodian workers. The officials provided detailed instructions on how to obtain a labor quota from the Labor Ministry and all the forms, records, and processes required to complete the process. It required more than 500 kilometers of local travel between regional offices and a lot of paper work to complete the application process.
• Importing three Cambodians involved paying a transportation fee to a private individual of about $120 dollars per worker. That fee also covered the risks associated with bringing an illegal worker to our farm. Physical exams, labor documents and immigration documents cost about $100 per worker. I followed all the rules to the letter, which required four days of work over a two-week period. The Cambodian workers were a husband and wife in their early twenties and a brother of one of them.
• They were given quarters in a 12 x 20 foot “office like” space in a commercial building that had three large windows, ceiling fans, a ceramic tiled floor and good insulation. They had around-the-clock access to a private, tiled bath in the same building that had a flush toilet, sink, shower and fresh, clean, hot water. Their accommodations were probably superior to their living conditions in Cambodia and were superior to those of Thai villagers in our area.
• They signed an agreement that said they would not have to pay their inbound transportation or processing costs if they completed a one-year contract. If they did not complete their contract, they would be responsible for the transportation and paper costs, which would be taken out of their last month’s pay. Another Cambodian in the area, who spoke and read Thai, translated the simple one-page agreement and explained it to the workers. All three signed the contract with a thumbprint because they could not read or write. They also signed all the labor documents, physical exams and immigration documents with a thumbprint, a legal signatory method in Thailand.
• They were given free food, including all the rice they wanted, vegetables raised on our farm and meat that was kept in a refrigerator next to their living space. They were provided with a cook stove and propane, a charcoal stove and charcoal, all the normal cooking utensils, an electric rice cooker, a TV, and they had access to plenty of fresh water. These items were all a part of the contract agreement. They also received free medical care at an area clinic seven kilometers away and at a regional hospital 15 kilometers away. They ate very well and lived in hygienic conditions and were given gloves and boots and common things workers use on Thai farms. They were paid $6 per day, which was all profit for them, since they had no outside living expenses.
• Near the end of their fourth month, with just two days notice, they decided to leave. Other Cambodians working in the area illegally, who thought they could make more money at construction projects around Bangkok, influenced their decision, and I agreed to let them go. I removed the work authorization papers that were stapled into their passports because they had to be returned to the Labor Ministry to cancel my worker quota so that it could be reassigned to someone else. I charged each worker half the original transportation fee and half the processing fee that I paid to establish the contract, which amounted to about $105 for each worker.
• The Cambodian workers were marginally skilled, illiterate and injury prone. Each one experienced at least one injury or illness about every two months that required multiple clinic visits. They would strike themselves in the head or feet with conventional farming tools, or they simply got sick.
• They gorged themselves on the free food, consuming three large cookers of rice every day, three to four large platefuls each at every meal. Using the same size cooker, my family (4 adults and 1 child) consumed less than one cooker of rice per day, with enough rice remaining after dinner to mix with dog food for seven large dogs. They consumed about $6 dollars worth of Thai Jasmine rice every day. I was not happy about that, but I did not want to violate my agreement to supply all their food needs.
• When they decided to leave, I dropped them off at the farm where their friends were working, ending their employment. A group of about ten Cambodian workers in the area decided to quit their jobs and make the trip to Bangkok to look for work in the construction trades, motivated by dreams of earning $10 a day. In their four months at my farm, they probably had remitted enough money to Cambodia to support their extended family for a year and were now looking to raise the ante, since their relatives in Cambodia were probably financially secure for a while. Wages for Bangkok construction workers are a bit higher than those for rural farm workers, but the cost of living and the conditions at the squatter camps where they live are very poor. I gave them the opportunity to change their minds and stay at my farm, but they decided to join the group of Cambodians, lead by a Cambodian who was literate in Thai, and go to Bangkok to pursue higher wages.
We shook our heads in disbelief. They could barely manage farm tools. They had little chance of surviving safely in the construction trades and in the squalor of the tin shacks built on some of the larger Bangkok construction sites, where there is little privacy, no safety and no protection for illegal migrant workers. They would have to compete with migrant Thai workers who struggle for a living in the same conditions. They would get the most difficult and dangerous work and fall to the bottom of the pecking order.
• The discussion about foreign workers and labor abuses needs to be understood in the context of rural Thailand. It must be based on an understanding of the region, its culture and its economics, not on a western model or western living standards.
• Thais of Chinese ancestry who migrated and married into the Thai culture many generations ago dominate the business sector in Thailand. The Chinese influence is unmistakable, and it permeates the labor market in Thailand. Thai/Chinese business owners never give anything away without maximizing every advantage. It is part of their competitive ancestry, a byproduct of the Chinese feudal system, a system that evolved within the small-farm merchant classes of early China. Large Thai companies that pay the significant up front costs for transportation, housing, food and allowances for foreign workers are not inclined to simply give up their investment and let their contract workers wander off.
• Migrant workers, on the other hand, often ignore their contracts and the significant investments of their employers to pursue jobs that pay more. Foreign work represents a pathway to personal prosperity that probably did not exist in their home country. In one year in Thailand, they can earn twice or three times as much as they would in their home country, so they tend to ignore the labor contracts when it comes to earning a few more dollars a day. It is often one of the strongest pathways to a more prosperous life.
• While doing everything right, my experience with migrant farm workers, showed that the foreign workers had zero loyalty to a privileged arrangement. If they believe they could earn a little more per day, personal comfort, privacy, normal work hours, private sanitary housing, local safety, food and water safety and zero-cost medicine mean nothing to them.
• While it easy for those in the first world to decry foreign work practices as unsavory, few in the first world recognize the value this option represents to those who want to improve their economical level in their home countries. This point of view was missing from the USA PBS TV show.
• Most immigrant workers in Thailand are nearly illiterate and have very low critical thinking skills. They don’t know how to evaluate the benefits of a positive work environment because life in their home countries contains none of those benefits. My group of three workers decided to pass on many of the good aspects of their work environment in the hope of earning $3 to $4 dollars more per day, despite the new risks they would face.
• Sore fingers at the end of a day of peeling shrimp probably means little to foreign migrant laborers. Likewise, for 14 to 16 year olds, in particular females, entering the shrimp farm trade, they are probably far better off in a foreign country than they are in their home country.
Sources: 1. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Thai Shrimp Industry Exploits Workers to Whet Global Appetite for Cheap Shrimp. PBS News Hour. MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. September 20, 2012. 2. Emails to Shrimp News International from Daniel Gruenberg on September 22 and 23, 2012. 3. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Thai Shrimp Industry Exploits Workers to Whet Global Appetite for Cheap Shrimp. PBS News Hour. Comments. September 25, 2012. 4. Seafood.com (an online, subscription-based, fisheries news service). Editor and Publisher, John Sackton (phone 1-781-861-1441, email email@example.com). Mazzetta Says in Letter Regarding Thai Shrimp That Thai Royal Agreed Not To Use Peeling Sheds. John Sackton. September 24, 2012. 5. SeafoodSource.com. Global Aquaculture Issues. Activists Continue Focus on Thailand Shrimp Farm Labor Practices. Stephen Newman (firstname.lastname@example.org). September 24, 2012. 6. Bangkok Post. Opinion/Editorial/Dirty Hands of Shrimp Trade. October 12, 2012. 7. Seafood.com (an online, subscription-based, fisheries news service). Editor and Publisher, John Sackton (phone 1-781-861-1441, email email@example.com). Thailand Cracks Down on Migrant Worker Exploitation by a Major Seafood Processor. Ken Coons (firstname.lastname@example.org). October 24, 2012. 8. The Bangkok Post. Commentary/News/Stain of Child Labor. Kultida Samabuddhi (Deputy News Editor). October 26, 2012. 9. Seafood.com (an online, subscription-based, fisheries news service). Editor and Publisher, John Sackton (phone 1-781-861-1441, email email@example.com). Thai Shrimp Industry Pleads with Their Prime Minister to Act Against Child Labor and Trafficking. John Sackton. November 2, 2012. 10. Seafood.com (an online, subscription-based, fisheries news service). Editor and Publisher, John Sackton (phone 1-781-861-1441, email firstname.lastname@example.org). Video: Shrimp Industry in USA and Thailand Pressures Gov’t to Clean Up Labor Abuse. John Sackton. November 5, 2012. 11. Undercurrent News. Editor, Tom Seaman (email@example.com). Darden Calls on Thailand to Address Shrimp Labor Situation. November 29, 2012. 12. Email to Shrimp News International from Pat Salvatore (firstname.lastname@example.org), Athitaya Pukthaisong’s husband. Since English is not Athitaya Pukthaisong’s native language, Pat, translated her comments. November 14, 2012. 13. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International, December 2, 2012.
|Print This Page|