Burmese ‘Slave Labor’ Continues in Thailand, Despite Bangkok Promises

By William Boot 26 September 2013

Tens of thousands of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, including children, continue to be used as virtually forced labor in the seafood processing industry, according to NGOs, despite pressure on the Thai government by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and US State Department monitors.

They are subjected to wage theft, falsification of labor documents, excessive fees for work permits, confiscation of travel documents and in some cases physical abuse, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) told The Irrawaddy.

The ILRF this week issued a statement spotlighting what it said were appalling work conditions and misuse of countless thousands of mostly illegal migrant Burmese in Thailand’s lucrative shrimp industry, which is worth US$1 billion in annual exports mostly to the United States, the NGO says.

“Migrant workers are paid such shockingly low wages because it benefits Western importers that can get large quantities of cheap shrimp,” ILRF’s director of campaigns Abby Mills told The Irrawaddy.

“Those importers play Thai producers off each other, seeking lower and lower prices, which puts downward pressure on wages and increases the likelihood of labor rights abuses. The incentive for everyone involved is to glaze over potential exploitation while continuing to pay low wages.”

The ILRF’s call for action to stop the abuse comes as the ILO begins a campaign to persuade Thai seafood industry companies to reform.

The Switzerland-based ILO launched in Bangkok on September 16 a Good Labour Practices program “for addressing child labor and forced labor in the Thai fisheries industry.”

The program, funded by the US government, is seeking to bring Thai government officials, industry management leaders and Thai trade union representatives together to address the problem.

However, the ILRF says previous efforts by Thailand’s seafood processing industry to reform and regulate itself have failed.

“Industry-led monitoring systems do not work. The incentives in such a system do not take into account the needs of low-paid migrant workers,” Mills told The Irrawaddy. “Auditors paid for by suppliers want more business from suppliers, so they are more likely to produce positive reports that conceal systemic concerns.”

Employee problems in the shrimp industry in particular have worsened if anything, Mills said. This is because shrimp farms in Samut Sakhon province south of Bangkok have been hit by a fish disease which has reduced production.

“Shrimp production is down by 40% and our partners on the ground are saying layoffs are a big problem right now, particularly as these workers do not seem to be getting any compensation when they are laid off,” Mills told The Irrawaddy.

“The workers who stay, but only work 3-4 days because of fewer shrimps are also not being paid the statutorily required 75 percent salary on days off, according to our partners. It’s a really tough situation.”

Thousands of Burmese are caught in this employment crisis in the shrimp industry because they have no documentation to enable them to move elsewhere in Thailand to find work—and there is little prospect of jobs back home despite Burma’s reviving economy.

As prominent economist Sean Turnell told The Irrawaddy earlier this month, the lack of employment opportunities in Burma remains a “truly critical issue.”

Turnell, co-editor of Burma Economic Watch, was commenting on the plight of as many as 100,000 legally registered Burmese in Thailand whose work permits are due to expire in the next few months. Unless Thai rules are changed these legal workers must return home.

More than 2 million Burmese are estimated to be working in Thailand, most of them illegally and therefore liable to abuse, said the ILRF.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting estimated that 400,000 Burmese were in Samut Sakhon province alone.

A UN-funded study by the Thai-based Labor Rights Promotion Network found that “for roughly 20‐30% of Burmese migrant workers, the coercive and deceptive means by which they are recruited into, and then retained, in exploitative working conditions constitutes trafficking into forced labor,” Mills said.

The launch of the ILO’s good labor practices program was attended by several senior Thai government and civil service officials, including Siriwat Kajornprasart, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, and Pranin Muttaharach, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour, as well as industry leaders and foreign diplomats.

But Thailand’s chaotic handling of visa and work permit rules for legal foreign migrant workers—from Laos and Cambodia as well as Burma—suggests that speedy action to clean up the fish processing industry as advocated by the ILO and ILRF is unlikely.

“We hope that the Thai government listens, as it is once again being considered for downgrade in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report, and this year they have run out of time to stay on the Tier Two Watch List,” Mills told The Irrawaddy.

The State Department publishes an annual survey of developing countries’ efforts to eliminate exploitation of people and has three categories for effort. Tier Two is to “warn countries that they were on a downward trajectory,” says the department. Tier Three lists countries failing to take “affirmative steps necessary to fight human trafficking.”

Thailand has been on the Tier Two Watch List for four years and was told by Washington in June that it was doing too little to stop “modern slavery.”