Rampant abuse of workers in Thai seafood trade: Report

Migrant workers from Myanmar at a processing plant in Ranong, Thailand. Most of Thailand's seafood workers are from Cambodia or Myanmar, and were taken into Thailand illegally by traffickers.
Migrant workers from Myanmar at a processing plant in Ranong, Thailand. Most of Thailand's seafood workers are from Cambodia or Myanmar, and were taken into Thailand illegally by traffickers.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Many are victims of slave trade, made to work long hours with limited medical care, it says

WASHINGTON • The seafood industry in Thailand suffers from widespread labour and human rights abuses, exposing nearly all US and European companies that buy seafood from the country to the "endemic risk" of having these problems as part of their supply chain.

A report released on Monday by food giant Nestle catalogued deceptive recruitment practices, hazardous working conditions, and violence on fishing boats and in processing factories.

It also faulted the industry for taking insufficient steps to ensure that workers were not underage. Most seafood workers are migrants from neighbouring Cambodia or Myanmar, who were taken into Thailand illegally by traffickers, given fake documents and often sold to boat captains, the report said.

On fishing boats, these workers routinely faced limited access to medical care for injuries or infection; worked 16-hour days, seven days a week; endured chronic sleep deprivation; and suffered from an insufficient supply of water for drinking or cooking, it added.

WORKED TO DEATH

Sometimes, the net is too heavy, and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear. When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water.

A WORKER FROM MYANMAR, on conditions on the fishing boats

"Sometimes, the net is too heavy, and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear," said a worker from Myanmar, according to the report. "When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water."

Workers sometimes went a year before receiving any wages, and some faced physical and verbal abuse if they did not meet production quotas, the report said.

The mistreatment was cited by the United States in its annual report on human trafficking, in which Thailand fell to the lowest level, as well as in lawsuits filed by consumers in the US accusing firms of selling seafood caught using slave labour. The European Union threatened earlier this year to ban Thai seafood imports if the country fails to improve the regulation of its fishing industry.

The report called for workers on fishing boats to be provided written contracts and for the industry to impose a "no fees to workers" rule that prohibits passing on the costs of a job to a worker.

In addition to the report, Nestle also released its own action plan that it hopes will help stamp out abuses in its supply chain. The plan includes setting up channels through which workers can air grievances, training for boat captains and owners, and establishing better methods of tracing raw materials and verifying labour standards.

Next year, Nestle said, it would announce new requirements for all potential suppliers as well as details of a plan for hiring auditors to check for compliance with new rules.

Work on the report started in December last year and was conducted by the non-profit organisation Verite, which interviewed more than 100 people in Thailand, including deckhands, boat owners and shrimp farmers.

"The report is a step in the right direction," said Mr Steve Berman, managing partner of US law firm Hagens Berman, which in August filed a class-action lawsuit against Nestle, alleging its Fancy Feast cat food brand was the product of forced labour.

"But our litigation will go forward because Nestle Purina still fails to disclose on its products, as is required by law, that slave labour was used in its making."

The Thai Ambassador to the US, Mr Pisan Manawapat, said his government took these problems seriously. Nestle's report was conducted largely before the Thai government took several recent major actions, he added.

Mr Pisan cited, for example, increased prosecutions of traffickers in recent months, and new rules imposed this month that required tracking devices on all Thai fishing boats larger than 30 tonnes.

The new rules also mandated independent observers on most Thai fishing boats in foreign waters, and imposed stepped-up fines for boat operators caught using undocumented migrant workers.

NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2015, with the headline 'Rampant abuse of workers in Thai seafood trade: Report'. Print Edition | Subscribe