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September 17, 2013

Activists Skeptical of Thai Food Companies Labor Pledges

by Ron Corben

More than 100 Thai companies in the country’s massive frozen seafood industry have agreed to better protect workers from abuses such as child labor and discrimination. Rights activists remain skeptical the protections will lead to substantive changes in an industry already under scrutiny by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department.

Thailand's frozen seafood industry employs some one million workers with exports valued at $6.5 billion a year. But it has long been accused of abusive working conditions for the Cambodian and Burmese migrant workers who make up the bulk of its labor force.

This week’s agreement by the Thai Frozen Foods Association includes pledges from 130 companies who signed a memorandum of understanding to adopt good labor practices.

Association executives say the agreement aims to offer protection to workers against child labor, workplace discrimination, forced labor and substandard working conditions.

Executives said international scrutiny over the industries' labor practices led to the agreement, which offers guidelines on work practices.

Sinapan Samydorai, a convener with the Singapore-based Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers, said the agreement is welcome, but enforcement remains an issue. "I'm quite happy to hear this but being an MOU [memorandum of understanding] more important is the actual implementation of this in practice. How do they verify," Samydorai questioned. "You know, how this could be eliminated in the seafood sector in the frozen seafood sector? So basically, who is going to monitor this new development to implement this MOU?"

The U.N.'s International Labor Organization (ILO) has been pressing the region to adopt improved labor standards, especially those focused on child workers and migrant labor.

The ILO said in the Asia Pacific region there are still an estimated 113 million child laborers in the five to 17 year old age group.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said the industry still has much work to do to recognize the rights of migrants and other workers.

"There's a very, very wide disparity between the sort of rhetoric we're hearing from various corporate social responsibility types and the heads of these businesses who are claiming they are going to clean up their supply chain in the actual actions on the ground. Enforcement of laws is the responsibility of the government and the Thai Government has failed to implement even the most rudimentary regulations for the Thai fishing industry," Robertson said.

The U.S. supermarket operator Walmart was challenged earlier this year after investigations found a number of serious violations of Thai law and labor rights standards at a Thai shrimp processing plant.

The Thai industry agreement comes as the country faces pressure from the U.S. State Department to improve labor standards or face a downgrade under the U.S. Tier 2 watch list of goods produced by children or forced labor. At the Tier 3 listing, Thailand could face trade and other sanctions.

Studies undertaken by the U.N.'s Interagency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found forced labor conditions for Burmese migrant workers in the Thai seafood industry, and debt bondage among Cambodian and Burmese workers recruited onto Thai fishing vessels.

Reports said an increasing number of Cambodian and Burmese workers are now reluctant to work in the Thai fishing industry due to dangerous working conditions.