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Western demand for Thai-produced shrimps is fuelling an epidemic of abuses, including child and forced labour, among Burmese migrants working in the poorly-regulated industry, a new report warned on Thursday.
The London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) accused Thailand of using trafficking as an “inherent” part of its economic model in order to secure higher profits, while western companies continue to look the other way.
Through in-depth interviews with several Burmese migrants, including children as young as 10, EJF uncovered a systematic pattern of abuses, fuelled by poor regulation, mismanagement and endemic corruption.
The workers – who are mostly undocumented and trafficked to Thailand through disreputable brokers – spoke of being trapped in bondage, forced to work excruciating hours with no food and regularly beaten or abused by their employers.
“If someone did not come to work they were scolded or beaten,” one Burmese migrant working at the Suphan factory in Mahachai told EJF. “The brokers scolded us, using abusive words to those who didn’t work fast enough.”
Others spoke of the horrors they witnessed en route to Mahachai, near Bangkok, from Myawaddy on the Thai-Burmese border. One migrant recalled being robbed by a gang of thugs, who demanded that their “navigators” hand over the women in the group.
“They raped [the] girls in the bush one after another,” he explained.
The report specifically pins blame on western companies for failing to implement effective auditing and supply chain mechanisms, despite importing the vast majority of Thailand’s shrimp produce.
“The consumer and the retailer have an obligation to look at these issues and address them,” Steve Trent, executive director at EJF, told DVB. “Our concern is that US retailers are not taking sufficient action against these kinds of abuses, which in some cases amounts to modern day slavery.”
The US consumes 46 percent of Thailand’s shrimp exports, which is estimated at 540,000 tonnes each year. Thailand is also the UK’s biggest exporter of shrimp. But most companies use ineffective global certification schemes that rely excessively on national laws and regulations, says EJF.
Earlier this week, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) identified serious flaws in Thailand’s industry-led certification scheme, and highlighted practically non-existent labour union rights and criminal defamation laws as key impediments to workers’ rights.
The ILRF accused US-based companies, especially Walmart, of exploiting domestic legal gaps to boost their own earnings. It follows an investigation which accused the multinational corporation of profiting from the exploitation of workers in Thai shrimp factories.
“Walmart is using its outsized footprint on global supply chains to exploit these workers,” said Abby Mills, ILRF director of campaigns. “It is the largest buyer of imported, farm-raised shrimp in the United States, the largest market for Thai exporters, and can play producers off each other to get lower prices. That is Walmart’s goal, and it unfortunately comes at a great human cost.”
EJF calls on companies to introduce their own independent audits and swiftly boycott local suppliers that are found in breach of basic labour standards.
“Were this an issue of food hygiene, and if there were concerns about the sanitary conditions in these facilities then there would be blocks on the shrimps coming in fairly quickly,” said Trent. “We think there needs to be a similar forceful and swift response when it comes to labour violations.”
The pre-processing stage of shrimp production, which takes place in so-called “peeling-sheds”, was identified as particularly vulnerable to abuses.
“I had to peel the shrimp shells and excrement,” 11-year-old Aung Aye told EJF. “There were about eight or nine children in the factory.”
Trent added that Thailand’s nationality verification scheme – which is intended to legally register all migrant workers in the Kingdom, but has been criticised as complicated, expensive and ineffectual – almost seems to have been “designed” to fail.
“It’s a drive for high profits at low cost,” said Trent. “You have an issue of corruption at every level … specifically among statutory agencies that are designed to prevent these kinds of abuses.”
Around 650,000 workers, mostly from Burma, work in Thailand’s export-driven shrimp industry, which is estimated to earn the government some US$1.5 billion annually. They are among 3-4 million migrant workers in Thailand, who mostly occupy low-skilled, labour-intensive and quasi-legal jobs.
Thailand has been repeatedly criticised for its failure to address human trafficking in its fishery sector. For the fourth year running, it was ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List on the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report. The emerging Southeast Asian giant is likely to be downgraded to Tier 3 status – which may carry trade sanctions – next year, unless it makes significant efforts to implement a successful counter-trafficking strategy.
But campaigners say that global consumers must also play their role in tackling abuses in the supply chain.
“I think [people in the west] eat [Thai] shrimp because they don’t know how it is produced,” said Aung Aye. “If they knew, they wouldn’t eat it.”