Fisherman in Thailand © 123RF
Fisherman in Thailand © 123RF

Exercising rights is key to improving migrant worker conditions

17 March 2016

Migrant workers in Thailand remain as vulnerable to abuse as ever despite government and industry initiatives, according to a report.

A study from the Migrant Workers Rights Network and the International Labor Rights Forum said that corporate supply chain monitoring programs, prompted by attention on the plight of migrant workers in Thailand’s seafood industry, are applying “a failed CSR model”. The report, Building a Rights Culture, highlights worker-driven efforts to improve conditions in Thailand’s seafood industry.

There are between three and four million migrant workers in Thailand, according to MWRN, mostly from Myanmar, with some from Cambodia and Laos also. But the report said labour laws which continue to prohibit trade unions mean their is no genuine representation or method of feedback for migrant workers.

It said: “So even as global brands invest more resources into improving their monitoring initiatives, they are unlikely to achieve significant change to conditions on the ground, as the failures of the same model applied in other sectors have demonstrated. As long as workers do not have the power to hold employers and the global corporations that ultimately dictate prices accountable, these human rights abuses will continue.”

The report presents case studies where MWRN has helped migrant workers organise themselves to negotiate for better conditions in workplaces. It claims that this is helping to resolve some of the most common abuses faced by migrant workers in Thailand such as high recruitment fees, document confiscation, non-payment and late payment of wages and dismissal of workers.

MWRN said it had secured more than 10m baht as compensation for unpaid wages to migrant workers, mostly in the seafood sector, by negotiating directly with employers and holding them accountable for illegal labour practices.

The report highlights work MWRN has done with leading seafood companies to remove recruitment fees and subcontractors from involvement in migrant worker recruitment and affairs, as well as getting passports returned and getting compensation for dismissed workers.

It calls for these case studies to be used as a guide by industry and government leaders to tackle human trafficking in Thailand.

The report also calls for companies to respect the rights of the workers in their seafood supply chains, and asks them to add requirements for suppliers into contracts and purchasing orders, and to ensure their purchasing practices support compliance.

Supplier requirements should include prohibiting worker-paid recruitment fees and confiscation of documents, the report recommends. All costs of hiring workers and obtaining relevant legal documents should be borne by the employer. Workers should have access to identity documents at all times.

They should also respect the right of workers to organise freely and collectively bargain. Buyers can show support for this by preferentially sourcing seafood from vessels and facilities with collectively bargained union contracts.

Other measures called for include establishing a worker-based grievance mechanism that permits workers to directly, and through their legal representatives, submit complaints to the supplier and involve the buyer whenever necessary.

Suppliers should be able to demonstrate that workers have contracts in a language they understand and show that workers receive regular wages, at or above the minimum wage.

Seafood buyers and suppliers should be transparent and make information regarding how and from which suppliers and sub-suppliers seafood products are sourced publicly available to provide full chain-of-custody verification.

The report concluded: “Audit-based schemes intend to provide assurances to end buyers. They are not ensuring workers the ability to exercise their rights and access responsive grievance remediation mechanisms when their rights are violated.

“The real solution turns the focus inside out. Securing decent conditions in the seafood industry depends on the ability of the workers to exercise their rights at work and access responsive grievance redress mechanisms when their rights are violated.”

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