A horrific story about the extreme exploitation faced by Burmese migrant workers at a poultry farm which supplies one of Thailand’s biggest food companies has sparked international outrage, shining a light on the poor working conditions facing many migrant workers in the country.
“The jobs that Thai people don’t want to take are being taken by these migrant workers,” Fuzz Kitto, the co-director of Stop the Traffik Australia, told Equal Times. “Many are vulnerable and come from desperate situations in their country of origin. Put those two things together and exploitation is very likely to occur…and it does.”
Fourteen rescued workers are currently living in a safe house operated by the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network (MWRN) while they await the resolution of their case and compensation for years of unpaid work and abuse at a poultry farm operated by the Thai food export company Betagro.
The workers claim that they spent up to fours year on poultry farms where they were forced to sleep alongside chickens, and work long shifts with no sick pay or holidays. Only a Facebook post read by MWRN led to their rescue.
Now, a broad coalition of labour, civil society and human rights organisations are demanding an end to modern-day slavery in Thailand’s poultry industry – something with a recent report from the NGOs Finnwatch and Swedwatch declared to be disturbingly common.
On 2 September, the 14 rescued workers launched legal action against Betagro, the farm owner and Thai government officials. They are claiming 46 million baht (approximately US$1.33 million) in compensation and civil damages.
On the same day, over 45,000 signatures gathered by the international anti-slavery movement Walk Free, were presented to the Thai Broiler Processing Exporters Association (TBPEA), calling on the 14 workers to be fairly compensated, and for Betagro to investigate and end exploitation in its supply chains.
MWRN says the TBPEA has so far “responded positively to pressure” resulting from the international media coverage on this case, launching a Good Labour Practices initiative with the Thailand’s Department of Labour Protection and Welfare and the Department of Livestock in the middle of August.
But activists are also calling on purchasers in Europe – which accounts for 41 per cent of Thailand’s poultry exports – to take immediate measures to ensure their supply chains are free of worker exploitation.
“What we need is a certification process from third party assessors to investigate and certify the benchmarks of acceptable labour and environmental standards, [along with] unannounced inspections of poultry farms and factories,” said Kitto, adding that this would require a major culture shift on the ground.
More than just chicken
In fact, poultry is just one of several Thai industries implicated in migrant worker abuse. In 2014, investigations uncovered numerous instances of modern slavery in the Thai fishing industry. Moreover, according to the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Person’s Report (TIP), sex trafficking, child labour and domestic workers exploitation are all being prevalent in Thailand.
“Inhumane exploitation and violations of migrant workers’ rights...are not isolated to the fishing industry in Thailand,” Kalle Bergbom, head of research at Swedwatch, told Equal Times. “On the contrary...this treatment of migrant workers is systematic and common in many Thai industries.”
Thailand is one of the major receiving countries for migrant workers in Asia, mostly from Myanmar, with an estimated four million Burmese workers alone in Thailand. Of those, the majority come from poor villages or conflict zones, and, quite often, lack both legal documentation and contracts. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“When you look at migrant workers, there are really three issues – first they are abused by recruiters. Then they are abused by their employers, and then by corrupt officials. They really are the victims here,” said Andy Hall, a migrant rights advocate with MWRN, who himself is facing jail timefor his research into the abuse of workers’ rights by the Thai global fruit processing company, Natural Fruit Company.
Still, Hall sees some positive steps, including a new law that has eliminated recruitment fees and helps to supervise the work of recruitment agencies, which are often the entry point for workers to become trapped in exploitative situations.
It was because of such moves that Thailand was upgraded from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 watchlist of the TIP report last year. Still, Hall is concerned that new laws will have little impact on the ground.
“These laws are incredibly positive steps, but it is going to be all about enforcement,” said Hall. “This is a country...where the law is enforced in such a corrupt manner.”
There are also concerns that the flow of migrant workers into Thailand – and the subsequent labour exploitation – will only increase with the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which began earlier this year. The AEC allows for more freedom of movement across the borders of 10 south-east Asian nations, but, thus far, has limited protections for migrant workers.
Change is also happening overseas, as the recent news – both of the exploitation of workers in the poultry industry, but also of migrant workers in general across Thailand – is causing companies on the other side of the supply chain to react.
In response to the investigations on the fishing industry, numerous companies including Walmart and Tesco stopped purchasing seafood from implicated companies. Similarly, Bergbom is seeing companies in Scandinavia take action on their poultry supply chains.
“[This] has, to a great extent, increased the awareness and engagement of Scandinavian stakeholders involved in the trade with Thai poultry products,” said Bergbom.
“Importers have initiated investigations of their supply chains and are demanding assurance from their Thai suppliers that conditions for migrant workers are up to international standards and in accordance with existing code of conducts.”
Key to ensuring that these steps have a positive impact on migrant workers in Thailand is increasing transparency and working with outside actors to monitor supply chains.
“Stakeholders in these industries need to provide transparent information regarding their supply chains,” said Bergbom. “[Purchasing] companies should [work together] to establish pressure on employers in the supply chains who exploit and violate workers.”
One thing nearly everyone can agree on – it will take a concerted effort from companies, civil society and the Thai government to ensure that the abuse of migrant workers from Myanmar does not occur again.