Since the European Union gave Thailand a yellow card in April 2015 for illegal fishing, the country’s government and the industry in question have launched a campaign to clean up a sector also tarnished by accusations of slavery and labour abuses. Since being cautioned, Thailand has passed dozens of new laws aimed at tightening controls on fishing vessels and factories.
Many academics and activists view the measures as a positive step towards better working conditions in the long term, but in the meantime, many migrants are suffering the consequences of the new regulations, which have given rise to widespread dismissals combined with difficulties finding alternative employment.
In the first six months of 2016 alone, almost 10,000 migrants lost their jobs when seafood processing factories were closed down or absorbed by large export companies.
The Thai government has pledged to intensify the measures in 2017 in a bid to improve the ranking it receives in the Trafficking in Persons Report published every year by the US Department of State.
Graphics reporter Antolín Avezuela and journalist Laura Villadiego met with some of the migrant workers and factory owners left in the lurch by this restructuring process.
Two Burmese immigrants waiting at the gates of the factory where they used to work in Mahachai, south of Bangkok, where most of Thailand’s seafood processing industry is based. Factories like theirs closed down last year after the Thai Frozen Foods Association, the main organisation representing Thai seafood export companies, prohibited outsourcing in its members’ supply chain. The measure was taken after the sector was strongly criticised for using slave labour.
Janhom Kaewchulasri used to employ 90 Burmese migrants in the shrimp peeling factory that she had to close last year after the Thai Frozen Foods Association banned outsourcing to plants such as hers.
Over 50 seafood processing plants closed at the beginning of 2016, leaving over 5,000 workers, most of them Burmese migrants, in legal limbo. In Thailand, work permits for foreign workers are tied to a specific employer and are not easy to change. Following the factory closures, the Thai government authorised migrant workers to change employer as long as they remained in the same sector. The fishing industry in Thailand has undergone far-reaching reform in recent years in an effort to respond to accusations of illegal fishing and slave labour practices.
Punsin Kaewmanee shows us his empty shrimp peeling factory. The plant, which used to employ 135 workers, has been closed for a year since the ban that prohibited large export companies from outsourcing to firms like his. Some of his former employees, Burmese migrants in the main, have been hired by seafood export manufacturers, but many others have been forced to return to their countries of origin. At the time of closing down, Punsin Kaewmanee was still paying for the renovations imposed on him by the factories he used to work for.
Aung, 40, and Nge, 24, had been working in small shrimp peeling factories for years. Aung, who has two children, aged 7 and 13, went back to her hometown, Mawlamyine, in Burma, after failing to find work in another factory.
Aung Myo Tha, of Burmese origin, had just had a child when he lost his job at a shrimp peeling factory that supplied large export companies, following their ban on outsourcing to factories like his.
Chotan, aged 36, migrated to Thailand over ten years ago from poverty-stricken Mawlamyine, the Burmese city where he was born. Like thousands of other Burmese migrants, he found work in the prosperous seafood processing industry in Mahachai, just over an hour south of the capital, Bangkok. Following accusations of slave labour, the plant where he had been employed for the last four years had to shut down.