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Exploitation claims hit Thai seafood exporter PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 11 April 2012 00:00

Striking migrant workers are claiming serious exploitation, including docking pay for so-called "bondage payments" and holding passports, at a seafood factory in Thailand.

The factory in question, the Phatthana Seafood Company, is believed to be a key exporter to Australia, the United States and Europe.

It is also said to be part of the Rubicon group, a collection of seafood factories that supply the US giant Wal-Mart.

Up to 2,000 Cambodian and Burmese workers are striking at the factory, and while it is on the approved list with the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it is unclear whether it is currently exporting to Australia.

Advocates on site claim workers who wanted to leave the factory for the annual Thai new year Songkran holiday this weekend have been given their passports back for a fee of 1,000 baht ($30) paid to the employer.

Those who have not paid the fee have allegedly not had their passports returned.

The practice of trafficking illegal workers then forcing them into debt bondage in Thailand is not uncommon, but in this case the workers are employed legally and the factory is a major global seafood exporter.

Migrant advocate Andy Hall from Thailand's Mahidol University has been pursuing the case and says the protest escalated quickly.

"The management apparently decided to reduce the benefit for the workers and almost immediately a protest erupted," he said.

"Workers were very angry so they gathered outside of the gate, and it started to get a little bit heated and there were police brought in, shots fired and now we just have a situation where we have a lock-out."

The protest comes after the freshly elected Thai government moved to impose a minimum wage, taking take-home pay in the province from 176 baht ($5.50) per day to 246 baht ($7.70).

It is believed the change may have motivated the factory's owners to scrap a 20 baht daily food allowance - and that 62c loss has infuriated workers.

Asking questions

Mr Hall says the exploitation claims, if proven, are disturbing.

"The evidence suggests this is quite a large factory and an international exporter from what the reports have been saying. If so then the conditions would be particularly bad because generally with these international factories they are monitored quite closely," Mr Hall said.

"We often find that in smaller factories with smaller workforces - prawn peeling sheds or things like that - we often find very exploitative conditions including trafficking, forced labour, violent failure to adhere to the minimum labour standards."

"But this is an exceptional case because the workers actually are some of the first workers to come in through the new legal import system."

International importers rules outlaw debt bondage and the holding of passports by employers, and Mr Hall says Australia should be asking questions about the origins of its seafood.

"Seafood is one of the most significant export products from Thailand - making up something like 50 per cent goes to the US," he said.

"But there's also a large amount going to Europe, Australia and within Asia and this is the responsibility of the corporations. It is also the responsibility of people in countries like Australia to be asking and demanding answers about where their seafood does come from."

By South-East Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel


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