A Thai tuna processing factory has agreed to pay staff $1.3 million compensation for a litany of labour abuses, officials said Tuesday (1 March), a rare victory for migrant workers in the kingdom’s scandal-mired seafood industry.
Hundreds of Myanmar labourers at a processing plant in Samut Sakhon that sells fish to markets around the globe have spent months seeking compensation for exploitative working conditions.
Thailand is the globe’s third-largest seafood exporter, but the industry is plagued with rights abuses and fuelled by trafficked labour from neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia.
The military junta in Thailand has gone on a last-ditch offensive to clean up its fishing industry ahead of a vital EU decision on whether to ban its exports over abuses of its fishing stocks and fleets.
The sector has come under heightened scrutiny from foreign observers, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and governments over the past year, with the European Union currently weighing an all-out ban on Thai fishing products.
Thailand’s shortcomings are all against the principles of EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s ‘Trade for all’ strategy, which takes into account human rights and civil liberties in trade negotiations. Her deputy head of cabinet, Miguel Ceballos Barón, even went as far as telling EurActiv.de that the European Parliament would “never” ratify a deal, even if the Commission negotiated one.
Barbara Lochbihler, the Greens/EFA spokesperson on foreign affairs and human rights policy, as well as vice-president of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, also told EurActiv.de that the EU must continue to use its influence on Thailand wisely in order to achieve the goal of “sustainable, legal and, above all, ethical products from the Thai fishing industry”.
The threat of a ban on fish imports hangs over Thailand if it does not do more to combat human trafficking, slave labour and illegal fishing. Europe must use its lucrative markets as leverage, urged Barbara Lochbihler in an interview with EurActiv Germany.
The United States also recently passed a bill outlawing products made from forced labour that could see Thailand crippled with sanctions.
Rights groups say Golden Prize workers had long been subject to unlawfully low salaries and abuse from supervisors.
Following a 1,000-strong worker strike last week, company representatives joined negotiations with military officers, government officials and migrant worker leaders, reaching an agreement late Monday evening (29 February).
“The company began paying 1,100 workers last night involving money of 48 million baht ($1.3m),” Boonlue Sartpetch, the head of the province’s labour department, told AFP Tuesday.
He said 700 workers have been paid, with the rest expected to receive compensation Tuesday.
Golden Prize Tuna Canning, which employees nearly 2,000 workers, mostly from Myanmar, declined to comment.
The US Department of Labor currently lists Thai fish and shrimp as products the government has reason to believe are manufactured by slave labour.
Thailand’s ruling military junta, which seized power in a 2014 coup and has struggled to revive a flagging economy, is desperate to avoid any damaging sanctions on the fishing sector.
Officials have touted new legal regulations and periodical crackdowns on traffickers and fishing factories as evidence of reform.
Last month police said they arrested more than 100 people on trafficking charges linked to the fishing industry.
Authorities have also registered nearly half of an estimated 200,000 undocumented foreign workers in the seafood sector, officials said.
On Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee hailed the peaceful settlement between Golden Prize and its workers as a model for future disputes.
“The government is committed to use this approach in order to eliminate labour exploitation and to uplift the quality of life of workers in Thailand,” he said.
Andy Hall, a British labour activist who has been assisting the Myanmar workers at Golden Prize Tuna, said he suspected that the spectre of massive trade sanctions was finally forcing the Thai government to act.
“To get a dispute like this that involves so much money and actually have it settled is very unprecedented,” he told AFP, adding that the tuna company and local labour department have dodged the worker’s complaints for nearly a year.
In the past some Thai factories have responded to rights abuse allegations by filing defamation lawsuits, which Hall is currently facing for highlighting exploitation at a Thai fruit company.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the Thai military deposed the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.
The government has promised a lengthy process of constitution-drafting before any return to elections in 2017 at the earliest.