Labor Rights Group Urges Reform in Thai Shrimp Industry




The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) is urging the International Labor Organization (ILO) to consider the conclusions of a recent report on working conditions in the Thai shrimp industry as it undertakes a project to reform the industry. The Walmart Effect: Child and Worker Rights Violations at Narong Seafood, released by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and Warehouse Workers United (WWU), found a number of serious violations of Thai law and international human rights standards, including child labor, wage theft, falsification of labor documents, and workers being charged excessive fees for work permits and passports. The ILO launched their project September 16, 2013.

For the report, researchers documented conditions in seven shrimp-processing facilities in Southern Thailand, all of which were certified by the industry-led Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) auditing system. Several of the facilities supplied Walmart, which was a leader in developing BAP standards and is actively engaged in formulating the initial stages of the ILO program.

“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.”

The report concludes that the industry’s self-monitoring system allowed significant labor violations to continue undetected and makes the following recommendations to strengthen industry monitoring:

1. Thai labor law reform. Migrant workers have no legal right to freedom of association because Thailand has not ratified core ILO conventions, and Thai labor law establishes discriminatory labor practices for migrant workers that can be exploitative. The Thai government has also used criminal defamation to curb freedom of speech among labor activists. The Government will have to address these legal issues for a sustainable solution to the problems in the shrimp industry. 
2. Include worker voice, particularly of migrant workers. Most of the low-paid workforce in shrimp factories and farms are migrants from neighboring countries, particularly Burma. Local migrant rights groups and labor unions are advocating on behalf of these exploited workers and should be included in developing any plan to improve working conditions. 
3. Transparent, accountable, independent monitoring. Workers were aware of inspections under the BAP process, but said factories had advance notice, auditors worked closely with management, and workers were intimidated into lying about working conditions. Auditors paid for by the supplier have an incentive to produce positive reports, not to uncover abuses.

ILRF welcomes serious efforts to protect exploited shrimp workers and hopes the ILO will positively affect working conditions in the industry. For this effort to be successful, however, our research and past experience demonstrate that only legally-binding efforts with third-party inspection and an equal role for workers’ organizations will be successful.

The ILO is beginning its project at a difficult time for the Thai shrimp industry as early mortality syndrome (EMS), a shrimp disease, has reduced shrimp production in Thailand by as much as 30%. As slowdowns lead to layoffs, it will be all the more important to ensure that shrimp manufacturers adhere to Thai labor law and seek to reduce the negative impact on workers and their families.

Background: Thailand is one of the world’s largest exporters of shrimp. Each year the Thai shrimp industry exports hundreds of thousands of tons of shrimp (worth roughly $1 billion) to the United States, its largest export market. The shrimp are raised on farms, peeled, cooked, processed and packaged by a low-paid workforce that is made up almost entirely of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos. The unemployment rate in Thailand has been below 1% for years, leading to massive inward labor migration. Up to 10% of the Thai labor force immigrated from Burma, Cambodia, or Laos, and the majority of those workers are in labor-intensive export industries such as seafood processing, agriculture and garment manufacturing. The U.S. State Department highlighted problems in Thailand’s fishing industry in its 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report.