A US human rights group is calling on major Western food retailing companies to put pressure on businesses in Thailand after a major Thai conglomerate was linked to allegations of trafficking and slave labor involving Burmese migrants.
The call for action comes from the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) following an investigation into Thailand’s fishing industry, which employs thousands of Burmese migrant workers.
The investigation, by The Guardian newspaper of London, spotlighted the plight of “large numbers of men who have been bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand” and who were part of the “production of prawns sold in leading supermarkets around the world.”
The newspaper identified CP Foods as being closely tied to supply chains that include Thai fishing boats using Burmese slave labor. Two Western supermarket chain companies, including France-based Carrefour, have already stopped buying supplies from CP Foods in the wake of The Guardian report.
“Swift action is vital, and action from [prawn] buyers can significantly improve conditions for the workers along their supply chains,” ILRF campaigns director Abby Mills told The Irrawaddy. “ILRF does not, however, advocate a cut and run approach.”
“Cutting relationships with suppliers without first trying to address the underlying problems can leave exploited workers in bad situations without options for redress. Western companies should work with their Thai counterparts to make real changes that increase supply chain transparency, improve mechanisms to identify labor law violations and empower workers to report and seek remedy,” Mills said.
“Companies have an important role to play in setting certain standards for their suppliers, and enforcing them all the way down the supply chain, that could dramatically improve livelihoods and working conditions for these workers.” That kind of response begins to get at the root causes of why labor trafficking is so prevalent in the Thai seafood sector, Mills said.
The call for action by the ILRF comes as Thailand is embarrassingly scolded by the United States for its failure to tackle migrant labor abuse in the country.
The US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, released last week, downgraded Thailand’s status to the lowest tier, placing it in the same category as North Korea, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the aim of the report was to remind the world “of what happens in many dark places that need light.”
Previous US reports on human trafficking had urged Bangkok to deal with the problem, but this year marks the first time the State Department has downgraded Thailand.
Bangkok-based CP Foods is part of the sprawling CP Group, which has business interests across Southeast Asia and China with an annual turnover of about US$33 billion—more than half the size of Burma’s GDP in 2013.
“The investigation found that the world’s largest prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves,” said The Guardian.
Among other things, it alleged that migrants pressganged onto fishing boats had been forced to work 20-hour days, beaten and tortured. Fifteen Burmese and Cambodians interviewed by the newspaper said they had paid brokers to help them find work in Thai factories or on building sites.
“But they had been sold instead to boat captains, sometimes for as little as £250 [US$426]. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them,” The Guardian reported.
Shrimps sold by leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco, had come from CP Foods, it said.
“At the heart of the problem is Thailand’s treatment of its migrant workforce,” said the ILRF’s Mills.
“At the end of 2013, there were an estimated 3-4 million migrant workers in Thailand. The majority of these workers, 80 percent, came from Burma to work in the most dangerous, dirty jobs, including manufacturing, seafood harvesting and processing, and domestic work,” Mills said.
“Complex, expensive immigration policies and labor laws that bind migrant workers to their employer also leave them vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Endemic police corruption, including the direct involvement in and facilitation of human trafficking by law enforcement officials, perpetuates the problem,” according to the 2013 Trafficking in Persons report from the US Department of State.
CP Group was in the spotlight in 2013 over the treatment of Burmese workers at one of its seafood processing factories south of Bangkok. The firm fired 160 Burmese without notice or proper compensation at its Mahachai coastal factory in a process that involved dubious sub-contractors.
The firm agreed to re-instate the workers following the intervention of NGOs and the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok.
CP Group, which employs 280,000 people worldwide and operates the world’s third-largest 7-Eleven convenience store franchise, has expressed interest in investing in rice and maize farms, milling plants and meat processing factories in Burma.
CP Foods in Bangkok declined to comment to The Irrawaddy on the allegations in The Guardian, which quoted a company spokesman in Britain, Bob Miller, saying slavery was indefensible. “We know there’s issues with regard to the [raw] material that comes in [to port], but to what extent that is, we just don’t have visibility,” Miller told the paper.
The revelations about slave labor come as the military coup leaders in Thailand have ordered a targeting of migrant labor in general in the country. There have been numerous reports of soldiers and police raiding businesses employing Burmese and Cambodians.
Tens of thousands of Cambodians and an unknown number of Burmese, mostly undocumented workers, have been sent back across their borders. Reports have said that even legally documented Burmese are being harassed by the authorities since the Army took over the country.