Migrants petition Thai seafood giant, as EU yellow card remains

Thailand's multi-billion dollar seafood export sector still remains under an EU 'yellow card', as migrants press for better working conditions. [Ian Burt/Flickr]

More than 2,000 migrant workers at a major Thai seafood exporter called on Monday (30 January) for higher wages and better working conditions, a rare stand in a country where foreigners are banned from forming trade unions.

Thai seafood exports – an approximately €3bn industry – is currently under an EU ‘yellow card’ warning system, with a total ban possible if violations of the IUU (Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported) fish catches do not improve.

The Thai junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha since a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, has made some efforts to clean up the sector, although not enough as yet to have Thailand removed from the DG Mare ‘card’ system.

Thailand claims junta better placed to tackle fish sector abuses

Thai authorities have registered more than 70,000 previously undocumented foreign workers in its fishing industry, navy officials said Thursday (11 February), part of a bid by the junta to stave off a potentially ruinous EU ban on its seafood exports.

The death late last year of the world’s longest-serving monarch, King Bhumibol, and the succession by his son Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, had led to hopes of some freeing up of the political situation, but elections under a new junta-written constitution are still not expected until mid-2018 at the earliest.

Leaders representing 2,243 Myanmar employees at processing factories owned by Sea Value Group submitted a petition “requesting increased welfare benefits and change of work conditions”, the Migrant Worker Rights Network said in a statement.

“This unfair legal limitation in Thailand on migrant workers democratically being able to organise for collective bargaining creates a challenge for many major buyers of Thai products exported worldwide who mandate minimum labour rights/labour relations standards Thai exporters must comply with.

“Most overseas buyers in consumer/rights sensitive countries require that employers and governments ‘respect the right of all employees to freedom of association and collective bargaining’ (the right to social dialogue and determine conditions of work) but not that employers have to ‘promote’ this,” Andy Hall, an activist with the network told euractiv.com, noting that the workers had previously won concessions on reducing recruitment fees.

Thailand is the world’s third largest seafood exporter, but the industry has been dogged by allegations of rights abuses and cheap labour in its fishing fleets and many food processing factories.

The sector is mainly staffed by poor migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

But their treatment has caused increased jitters among international buyers, especially in Europe and the United States where consumers are demanding better ethical sourcing of food.

According to its website, Sea Value Group’s factories process more than 1,000 tonnes of tuna, sardine, mackerel and other fish a day, much of it exported to Europe and the US.

A spokeswoman for Sea Value Group declined to comment on the demands.

The website says the company’s products “meet and exceed consumer expectations with good manufacturing practices, ethical standards and promoted industrial and environmental sustainability”.

Thailand’s migrant workers have become increasingly vocal in recent years in pressing for better pay and conditions. But doing so can be fraught with risk.

Many employees remain undocumented, despite recent government efforts to register all migrant labourers.

That leaves many migrants vulnerable to abusive employers and traffickers. Thailand also does not allow migrant workers to form trade unions. Many who do complain find themselves out of work or even prosecuted under defamation laws.

In 2016, a group of Myanmar chicken factory workers alleged they were underpaid and forced to work 20-hour days.

The company denied the allegations and the workers found themselves charged with defamation and arrested for theft of the time cards they used to prove their long work days.

EU labour rights activist pleads not guilty to Thai defamation charges

A UK lawyer pleaded ‘not guilty’ Monday to defamation charges which could see him spend seven years in jail for exposing alleged labour abuses in Thailand’s tinned fruit factories.

Last September, Hall was convicted of criminal defamation and given a suspended jail sentence over a report alleging abuses in Thailand’s lucrative fruit industry. The British attorney has since left the country.

EU-Thailand relations after the coup

Thailand suffered a military coup in May 2014 - overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra after months of street protests, just as the second-largest economy in ASEAN was about to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the EU.

Thailand's economy: Free trade, fishing and fruit industries in the spotlight

As the Royal Thai Army plotted its coup against the democratically-elected government in May 2014, Thailand was the second largest economy in ASEAN, and stood on the brink of signing a landmark Free Trade Agreement with the EU.

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