Tuna challenge

Problems remain at Thai factories using Myanmar workers


Myanmar migrants work at a fish market in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand. Photo: EPA

Myanmar migrants work at a fish market in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand. Photo: EPA

Working conditions for migrant workers at Thai factories that produce tuna for European markets have improved, according to a new follow-up report published by Finnwatch.

The paper follows up on previous investigations evaluating the tuna-packing factories’ working conditions, in particular for migrant workers who are primarily from Myanmar and Cambodia.

The NGO is pushing a campaign called Supply Change aimed at encouraging supermarkets ensure better working conditions at the start of the supply chains.

On the plus side, the passports of migrant workers are no longer confiscated and they have written employment contracts; work safety has increased and social security has improved.

Yet there are still problems - patterns of work place discrimination are reported and some of the migrant workers say that they have to pay high recruitment fees.

The NGO Finnwatch says to overcome the remaining problems cooperation is needed between the factories, retailers that purchase produce from them, and organisations that genuinely represent the migrant workers.

“Migrant workers still find it difficult to get their voices heard. The complaint mechanisms and workers committees at the factories are not functioning as they should. Workers still cannot negotiate working conditions with their employer,” said Sonja Vartiala, Executive Director at Finnwatch.

The most significant shortcoming that was found during the follow-up research concerns recruitment fees for migrant workers who enter Thailand from Myanmar through the official MoU-process. These workers have to pay the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in various fees in order to take up employment at one of the Thai factories surveyed.

“The leading tuna factories and the tuna industry in Thailand must ban the collection of recruitment fees from migrant workers. European buyers must also include such a ban to their social responsibility requirements,” says Ms Vartiala.

The European Union has taken steps to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Thailand. The problem is closely linked to the working conditions at fishing boats where there has been incidents of forced labour and trafficking in persons. The new report notes that the monitoring of the supply chain of the factories is still in its infancy.

“The factories look to the Thai government to introduce changes to the legislation or are just about to start their own monitoring,” says Ms Vartiala.

The factories included into the report Thai Union Manufacturing and Unicord are part of Thai Union Group and the Sea Value Group and produce private label products for the supermarkets in Belgium, the UK, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Slovenia. The report encourages the European buyers to work more closely together to ensure better working conditions.

Finnwatch says that through audits alone it is difficult to achieve the necessary changes. Finding solutions to the remaining problems regarding discrimination, recruitment, and workers weak bargaining power requires genuine cooperation and dialogue between the industry representatives, buyers, and local workers organisations.

One migrant workers rights group that has been making efforts to improve the situation is the Migrant Worker Rights Network. MWRN International Affairs advisor Andy Hall told Mizzima Weekly that although things were moving forward there are still a lot of challenges in improving the working and hiring conditions of migrant workers.

He pointed to issues with recruitment, with insufficient representation, and with the brokers, who make money out of the hiring process.

Mr Hall says there has been a lot of talk from the Thai government about trying to improve conditions, but it is still too early to tell whether that much has been done. He spoke of a “real reluctance” to bring about meaningful change to a situation that has been going on for years.

One area that is proving difficult to investigate and police is the high seas. The UK-based NGO Environmental Justice Foundation released a research report in April 2015 entitled “Slavery At Sea”, which revealed ongoing cases of trafficking and forced labour, and pointed to Thai authorities as complicit in the crimes.

Discrimination would appear to be the key concern for foreign migrant workers at sea or on land in the factories. All the workers interviewed by Finnwatch say that there are many kinds of discrimination taking place at work.

Migrant workers from Myanmar complain that errors made by migrant workers are met with considerably less tolerance than those made by Thai workers. The interviewees say that Thai workers may come in late to work without the supervisor addressing the matter, but Myanmar workers who come in late get a warning immediately. The workers also insist that line supervisors use unorthodox punishment methods: if a supervisor does not like a certain worker, he or she is transferred to a more unpleasant duty on the production line, where work is harder.

The interviewed workers state that Myanmar workers may easily get fired for making the same mistakes for which Thai workers only get a warning.

One of the Thai factories surveyed boasted that it has a very strict policy against discrimination. Regulations against discrimination forbid discrimination based on race, caste, nationality, religion, age, handicap, gender, marital status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, professional association and political activity in recruiting, payment of salary, training of employees, promotion and terminating employment.

In the answer provided by the factory to Finnwatch, it said that the upper management will remind the factory supervisors and line supervisors about the factory’s policy against discrimination so as to ensure that all the employees are treated properly. The top management of the factory also plans to establish a special working group for examining reported issues related to the actions of supervisors and line supervisors.


This Article first appeared in the June 18, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

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