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Thailand migrant workers endure harsh conditions
Publication Date : 28-01-2013
Shrimp peeled by child labour. Pineapple juiced by workers whose passports have been withheld. And fish caught by virtually enslaved boatmen.
Allegations of abuse have tainted Thailand's US$30 billion industry of late even as its government scrambles to avert possible United States sanctions for its record on human trafficking.
The country, which prides itself as the food basket of Asia, is heavily reliant on low-skilled labour from poorer neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to power certain food processing industries.
But activists say many of these workers are undocumented and vulnerable to mistreatment by unscrupulous firms.
In the latest blow, a Finnish non-governmental organisation alleged last Monday that a pineapple concentrate factory employing 800 workers in the central province of Prachuap Khiri Khan was abusing its mostly Myanmar workers.
The company in question, Natural Fruit, supplies pineapple concentrate to a leading European soft drink and fruit juice maker.
According to the non-governmental organisation called Finnwatch, the workers had their passports and work permits withheld, which meant they could not switch jobs even though they were paid less than the legal minimum wage.
Some of the workers were children, and they were forced to work five to 10 hours of overtime a day, it alleged.
The lead researcher for the report, Andy Hall, told reporters last week: "The workers were clearly in a situation that was abusive, and they asked me for help."
The allegations come just months after American media reports accused shrimp factories in Thailand of using child labour.
Thailand is a top exporter of shrimp, accounting for 26 per cent of the US' imports from January to November last year.
Other reports claim migrant labourers toiling long hours on Thai fishing boats are simply thrown into the sea if they fall sick.
The spate of bad news could not have come at a worse time for Thailand, which is racing to demonstrate its will in fighting human trafficking to shore up its reputation ahead of the June release of the annual US government's report on this issue.
Since 2010, it has been languishing in the report's "Tier 2 watchlist", a grade reserved for states with large or increasing numbers of victims, and where the governments are not doing enough to combat the scourge.
If the situation does not change in the next few weeks, Thailand risks being bumped down to Tier 3.
That will open the way for the US to stop aid for Thailand and oppose aid from financial institutions such as the World Bank.
Earlier this month, the government went on a public relations offensive, organising a trip for diplomats to a shrimp factory accused of using child labour, to prove that its operations were above board.
Last Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry official hit out at non-governmental organisations, saying that some of them relied on outdated information and gross generalisations.
"Of course there could be isolated cases," Sek Wannamethee, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry's American and South Pacific Affairs unit, told The Straits Times.
But the government has rolled out a whole host of anti-trafficking measures over the past year, he said.
"Various quarters of Thai society" have wondered if the allegations are motivated by something else, he said, and if "because the US economy is hard hit by the economic downturn and the collapse of the euro zone… they want to have a non-tariff barrier on our shrimp exports to the US".
Still, the Thai government has set up a hotline and expanded a 24-hour police control centre to look into trafficking cases countrywide.
By the end of March, it will also have established monitoring centres for seven coastal provinces to keep watch on the crew of all fishing boats.
Sek added that the Labour Ministry plans to accredit factories in the shrimp, tuna, textile and sugarcane industries, to certify them free of child labour.
Thailand's food producers, for their part, admit the industry has its bad eggs, but plead for patience as they tackle them.
The president of the Thai Food Processors' Association, Ghanyapad Tantipipatpong, said: "I don't deny that we have problems with certain factories but… we have to take time."
In the meantime, it would help if conglomerates do not squeeze their food suppliers too hard in their quest for shareholder returns.
This would leave little margin for food producers to invest in worker welfare, she said.