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Little effect from slavery accusations on fish-product exports so far: ministry

THAILAND is still shipping seafood to the United States and Europe as normal despite the recent accusations of slave labour, according to the Commerce Ministry's survey of trading partners and Thai exporters.

"Importers are still ordering Thai fishery products as usual. Exports to the US and the European Union should not be affected by the problem," Srirat Rastapana, permanent secretary of the Commerce Ministry, said yesterday.

However, the Thai fishery industry needs to fix its image soon, as it could make sales abroad difficult and factor into consumers' decision-making in the future, analysts warn.

Thai trade officials in the US and EU markets have reported that Thai shipments to the US have not yet slowed down after Washington downgraded Thailand in its human-trafficking report because most importers and consumers still have high confidence in Thai fishery firms, which have done business with them for many years.

Japan is the largest market for Thai fishery exports so far this year, taking 27.1 per cent of total exports by value. In the first four months, the US accounted for 17.1 per cent, the EU for 13 per cent, mainland China 6.1 per cent, Vietnam 5.2 per cent, South Korea 5.1 per cent, Hong Kong 3.9 per cent and Canada 2.8 per cent.

The labour issue just recently popped up. The Commerce Ministry will closely monitor the impact in the long run as initially it has only had a psychological impact on customers. The government and fishery-related industries need to prove to the public urgently that Thailand has high concern for labour problems and strongly opposes forced labour, Srirat said.

Fishery exports this year should grow as normal, except for only shrimp exports, which will decline as the disease outbreak in hatcheries has not been clearly solved.

Seafood exports, including shrimp, dropped 12.2 per cent in the first four months to US$1.99 billion (Bt64.6 billion). Seafood exports make up 2.7 per cent of the country's total export value.

Poj Aramwattananont, president of the Thai Frozen Foods Association, said seafood traders had tried to sell products to various markets and reduce the dependency on giant markets like the US and EU for many years, as emerging economies proliferate. Sales to the US and EU would not affect Thai seafood growth.

However, Thai traders are still worried about their buyers and will conduct a roadshow to meet them to create understanding of labour issues.

Chanintr Chalisarapong, president of the Thai Tuna Industry Association, said tuna exports to the US and EU had dropped during the past three years since the financial problems in those markets arose.

Emerging markets currently account for 60 per cent of Thailand's tuna exports by value. The US accounts for 22 per cent and the EU 13 per cent.

To ensure sustainable growth, Thai exporters have tried to explore many markets, and not rely on only one single market, he said.

Analysts from Asia Plus Securities report that the United States' decision to downgrade Thailand to the lowest level on the "Trafficking in Persons" (TIP) report is expected to have a limited impact on Thai frozen-seafood companies because of their relatively small export volume to the US.

Thai Union Frozen Products' exports to the US made up 13.4 per cent of its revenue, while the US was just 1 per cent of Charoen Pokphand Foods' total. Both companies maintain good relationships with customers overseas and their product quality was trusted globally.

Even with the downgrade, orders from overseas markets were apparently unchanged, but it might make it difficult for TUF and CPF to capture new clients in the future, which could affect their future growth.

Labour costs in the industry are also rising, accounting for 8 per cent of TUF's expenses and 12 per cent of CPF's. As a result of the negative factors, the two companies' stock prices might experience short-term pressure.

Thanachart Securities said it did not expect TUF and CPF to face foreign bans, as both companies were leading seafood exporters and had good communications with their customers in terms of their compliance with human-rights standards.

TUF has diversified by importing skipjack and yellowfin tuna that meet EU standards, while its frozen shrimp exports to the US and EU made up only 7 per cent of its total revenue.

CPF has been at the centre of the labour controversy in Thailand after an investigative report by The Guardian newspaper this month.

Supermarkets have responded in various ways. Some like Whole Foods, Carrefour and ICA Norway have chosen to delist the supplier because of the allegations, but others like Wal-Mart and Costco have argued that they prefer to stand by the producer and use their weight to drive change.

Tris Rating has downgraded CPF to a "negative" outlook, from "stable", but without any mention of the TIP report.

The new rating reflects CPF's increasing financial leverage and deteriorating cash-flow protection following the acquisition of CP Pokphand Co and a slow recovery from the outbreak of early mortality syndrome in shrimp in Thailand.

"The 'AA-' ratings continue to reflect the company's leading position in the Thai agribusiness and food industry, diverse range of products and markets, strategic shift towards branded food products and financial flexibility."


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