Poultry industry traps migrant workers in 'debt bondage'

Poultry industry traps migrant workers in 'debt bondage'

Migrant workers in chicken processing plants throughout Thailand are routinely abused by their employers, according to a new report on the country’s booming poultry industry.

With chicken set to become the most consumed meat within five years, the joint study between Swedwatch and Finnwatch, ‘Trapped in the Kitchen of the World’, details the poor working conditions faced by vulnerable migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia in six poultry processing factories across Thailand.

Of the six factories included in the field study, four were found to have breached significant Thai labour laws, in addition to international standards set out by the United Nations and International Labour Organisation. At least three of the six plants investigated were using child labour, which is criminalised under Thailand’s Labour Protection Act 1998. Long hours, low pay and debt bondage were also exposed.

Data gathered from the interviews indicate that factory bosses have sacrificed workers’ rights in an effort to meet rising demand from the EU, which has become the number one importer of meat products from Thailand, receiving some 270,000 tonnes of Thai poultry in 2014. Unclear point of origin labelling regulations means European consumers often are unaware that they are purchasing an imported product. The opaque labeling regulations makes it nearly impossible to accurately calculate the volume of Thai poultry exports consumed in the EU.

In addition to damning work conditions, the report found employees were often literally trapped in the six factories under study – with managers withholding migrants’ passports and deducting wages to cover ‘recruitment fees’. Interviewees stated that they received no health insurance benefits, despite fees being deducted from their wages. Further evidence pointed to many being trafficked into the industry, locking them further in debt with human traffickers.

Often traveling to Thailand from Burma and Cambodia in search of higher incomes to support their families, migrant workers from two of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia were found to form what Swedwatch describes as, “the lowest level of Thailand’s labour pyramid.” Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), companies are obligated to apply due diligence in ensuring rights are respected throughout their supply chain structure. Murky practices and poor oversight in these factories means these checks have fallen through the cracks.

Speaking to DVB, Andy Hall of Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) said the industry is poorly managing its legal responsibilities. MWRN conducted the interviews with workers on behalf of Swedwatch.

[related]

“Given the allegations, MWRN expects the [Thai] government to conduct urgent investigations into labour and human rights conditions into the six named chicken export facilities, enforce minimum standards of law and take seriously the industry-wide challenges that face the poultry industry in properly protecting the rights of migrant workers.

“The industry is poorly managing its legal responsibility to protect and respect migrant rights and they need to be urgent in action and response, including the concerned poultry industry associations and poultry companies across Thailand,” Andy Hall said.

Further, Swedwatch criticised Swedish authorities and stakeholders in the report for failing to meet their social responsibilities, meaning meals served at public institutions may have been produced by exploited workers.

The report calls for several recommendations to be implemented, namely that: “Thai companies should ensure that all forms of unlawful recruitment fees are stopped and ensure that brokers are not charging migrant workers costs leading to debt bondage.”

The report interviewed six of the largest importers of processed chicken products, including Menigo, Martin and Servera, and Findus for a response to the findings – revealing a lack of understanding and research into the working conditions of those on the production line. While codes of conduct exist, Swedwatch alleges they are rarely enacted, and that working conditions should be of equal concern as ‘animal welfare and food security’. Many of the processing factories in Thailand defended the treatment of staff with CP Foods maintaining all their practices fall within Thai law.

In recommendations to the Swedish government, Swedwatch calls for human rights experts to be included in trade talks, and to act at the EU-level to mandate point-of-origin labeling as a requisite on processed products.

Leave a reply