A joint publication released this month by the International Labour Rights Forum and the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) indicates that a change in approach is required to tackle the slavery problems in the Thai fishing industry. MWRN states:
Egregious labor rights abuses, including forced labor and human trafficking, have been documented across Thailand’s seafood sector in dozens of reports over more than a decade. Recently, unprecedented international attention on Thailand’s seafood industry, particularly the plight of migrant workers who make up the majority of the workforce, has prompted a flurry of action from governments, exporters and Western brands that sell Thai seafood.
Despite the growing number of government and industry initiatives, migrant workers in Thailand remain as vulnerable to abuse as ever. New corporate supply chain monitoring programs are applying a failed CSR model that lacks genuine worker feedback and representation. Meanwhile, Thai labor law continues to prohibit migrant workers from organizing trade unions and thus seeking to bargain collectively with employers for better wages and working conditions.
So even as global brands invest more resources into improving their monitoring initiatives, they are unlikely to achieve significant change to conditions on the ground, as the failures of the same model applied in other sectors have demonstrated. As long as workers do not have the power to hold employers and the global corporations that ultimately dictate prices accountable, these human rights abuses will continue.
The report highlights current worker-driven efforts to improve working conditions in Thailand’s seafood export industry. It presents case studies from the grassroots organization MWRN that, despite the limitations on unionization, is organizing migrant workers to negotiate for better conditions in their own workplaces and changing factories from the inside.
These case studies demonstrate how worker-driven solutions have effectively resolved some of the most common abuses faced by migrant workers in Thailand. They should be used as a guide by industry and government leaders looking for long-term solutions to the human trafficking problem in Thailand.
By negotiating directly with employers and holding them accountable for illegal labor practices, MWRN has successfully intervened on behalf of tens of thousands of migrant workers in hundreds of cases. MWRN has secured more than 10 million baht (about $281,000) as compensation for unpaid wages to migrant workers, mostly in the seafood sector.
The successes of MWRN, which is migrant-led and migrant-organized, highlights the capacity of migrant workers to improve their own conditions and workplaces when given the chance.
There are 3-4 million migrant workers in Thailand. Most come from neighboring Myanmar, though there are sizable populations of migrants from Cambodia and Laos as well. These workers are the drivers of Thailand’s booming export economy, filling a labor shortage in industries many Thais will not work in, including manufacturing, construction and seafood harvesting and processing. Abuses are not isolated to the seafood sector, but can be found in most areas in which migrant workers make up a large proportion of the working force. In seafood harvesting and processing, migrant workers make up about 90 percent of the workforce.
Discrimination against migrant workers is systematic and legalized. Hence, eradicating abuses requires that the Thai government acts in several key areas including: ending official corruption and impunity for public officials involved in abuse of migrant workers; protecting migrant workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain; increasing oversight over private employment agencies and brokers and enacting and enforcing judicial reforms to stop the torture of migrant workers accused of crimes and ensuring human rights defenders and journalists can conduct their work without fear of retaliation.
Companies also have an ability and a responsibility to do much more to address the human rights in their own seafood supply chains, as established in the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises. The report provides recommendations for companies buying from Thailand to fulfill their human rights due diligence responsibilities, including sourcing policies and their implementation with suppliers to support long-lasting change that ensures respect for workers’ rights in seafood supply chains.
The report is available here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.