Clock ticking to reform migrant labour.

Published: 21/09/2015 at 04:45 AM



Newspaper section: News


Thailand will soon find out whether its fishing industry will be redcarded by the European Union for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, a decision that could cost the country billions of baht in lost trade. In this climate of uncertainty, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has released a report on migrant and child labour in the country's shrimp and seafood supply chains.

The seafood industry in Thailand is huge and worth more than US$7 billion (250 billion baht), with canned tuna representing $1.1 billion in revenue per year, or 53% of the global trade. It employs 200,000 people in the supply chain, 60% of whom are migrants. The shrimp industry employs another 700,000, 80% of whom are migrants. These migrants are mainly from Myanmar.

The report investigates the socio-economic effects of migration into land-based shrimp and seafood processing industries, attitudes among employers and industry workers, labour conditions, the exploitation of migrant workers, and access to services such as education by migrant workers' children. Unsurprisingly, the news is mainly negative.

Children from 15 to 17 can be legally employed and are a main focus of the report. The conditions these children exist in are harsh: ""In shrimp and seafood, 23.3% of children were working in wet and dirty conditions, compared to 7.6% in other industries."" Moreover, they are more likely to have to work with fire than in other industries. The result is that they are twice as likely to incur injuries.

Crucially, the report notes many children have no access to personal protective equipment such as suits, gloves, helmets and boots, or were forced to provide their own equipment. Worse still, there is bias in the system from the Thai employers: only 9% of migrant children received safety equipment while 40% of Thais received such equipment. And, migrant children work six hours longer than Thai children, with up to 18% of children averaging 50 hours a week - two hours more than the legal maximum for child labourers.

Furthermore, none of the working children in the industry who were surveyed in Surat Thani possessed any knowledge of child protection laws, and only about a third of children in Samut Sakhon demo-

strated awareness of the laws - compared with an average of 64% of children in nonfishing industries. This lack of provision of information regarding rights is exacerbated because only 3% of children have a written contract - a clear hallmark of exploitative circumstances as once children are injured, they are expendable.

Despite the government's efforts to help migrants, the ILO indicates 25% of migrant workers are irregular and unregistered, casting doubt on the government's efficacy in this regard. Indeed, the report points out the informal nature of the shrimp industry means it is especially difficult to monitor.

There is some good news. The Thai canned tuna market is quite centralised, with 18 processers and only three raw fish producers, with these three controlling, via a contractual system, over half the global trade of cannery-grade tuna. This centralisation means the trade can be better regulated, and in fact it appears to be more responsive to global pressure from consumers and from regional players such as the EU.

 However, the shrimp industry has 10,000 farms, hundreds of traders, about 1,000 processors and more than 100 export processors - meaning it is less responsive to international pressure.

This in turn means that the Department of Fisheries experiences problems with unregistered farms and with monitoring those who actually do register, which in turn means more migrant children are exploited.

The ILO's recommendations cover both the labour and the education issues. Policy-makers are advised to continue implementing the Good Labour Practices (GLP) programme and adopt it as a compliance system which can be advertised on products at the point of sale. This involves forcing more labour brokers to register their businesses with the Department of Employment, simplifying the migrant arrival and nationality identification process, including converting illegal labourers into legal ones, ensuring shrimp processors register workers legally as is the case with the more responsible tuna processors, and if subcontracting occurs, monitoring the subcontractors.

On education, all concerned need to make sure that children aged 5-14 are not working or helping their parents but are in state-provided day care or mainstream education, with special classes on the Thai language, subsidies for school fees, and non-formal education opportunities, the study recommends.

Over the next year, Germany is accepting the challenge of integrating 800,000 migrants from the Middle East. Germany's ageing population means such immigrants are sorely needed. They will fill employment positions at the lower spectrum of society, perhaps in dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs, but at least they will be granted rights and protections and their children will receive decent educations - they will have the opportunity to better themselves.

In contrast, though Thailand faces the same problem as Germany of an aging population, its cavalier attitude towards migrants is such that in the US, private lawsuits have now been filed against US retail chain and Thai companies over the alleged use of slave labour in the supply chain.

Moreover, the pending EU decision on Thai fisheries means the ILO's recommendations need to be implemented urgently, especially given that last month, the EU said that more needs to be done to avoid a red card. Interestingly, the ILO notes that one problem is that the government's Good Labour Practices (GLP) Task Force's meetings have been infrequent. The bureaucracy apparently fails to appreciate the scale of the problem, again risking letting down the country.

The government needs to change how migrants and their children are viewed within Thai industries. Instead of a neocolonial model of exploitation which sees these foreign labourers as expendable, easily replaced by more from labour brokers and traffickers, the state needs to welcome them and their children as guest workers and long-term economic contributors, improve standards in the workplace, and integrate them.

Then they can become legalised and plough their savings back into Thailand instead of returning to Myanmar when they can take no more suffering.

John Draper is project officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP), College of Local Administration (COLA), Khon Kaen University.

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

Migrant workers sort out fishing nets on a boat in Phang-nga. In its latest report, the ILO indicates 25% of migrant workers are irregular workers and unregistered. PATIPAT JANTHONG