March 27, 2014 00:00
By Thanapat Kitjakosol
Activists slam study that found little abuse in seafood industry
UNDER-AGE immigrant labourers make up 5-10 per cent of workers in the Thai processed-marine-food industry, mostly because they are willing to be registered as adults to earn full-scale pay or be allowed higher pay but harder work, a recent Bangkok seminar was told.
Their Thai employers said that while the numbers did not represent a majority of the workers in the industry, they would strive to solve the problem, which had resulted in Thailand being put on a watch list by advocacy groups who work on protecting under-age foreign workers and preventing forced migrant labour.
Held by Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies, the seminar mainly discussed a research paper titled “Survey of Employment Patterns of Migrant Workers in the Marine Food Industry (Processed Marine Food Sector – Tuna) in Thailand”, which had been conducted by the institute’s Asian Research Centre for Migration.
The research head, Ratchada Jayagupta, said the six-month survey had found no abuse of child labour, no forced labour, no intimidation and no duping of migrant workers at 13 factories in five provinces after interviews with 527 workers.
Ratchada said no discrimination was being practised between migrant and Thai workers at the 13 plants, and both types of labourer worked no more than the legal limit of 48 hours a week.
However, many of the foreign workers had paid between Bt12,000 and Bt20,000 to brokers, compared with the normal rate of around Bt6,000, to achieve speedy processing of their attempts to land jobs in the Kingdom.
Many of them were minors willing to lie about their age on passports or entry permits to get higher-paying work normally set aside for adults, she added.
Moreover, high rates are deducted monthly from their pay by Thai employers for accommodation, tap water and electricity.
The research chief said the workers were, however, happy working in Thailand, where they considered themselves to be fairly treated by employers and receiving higher wages than those paid in their countries of origin.
However, the survey results were dismissed at the seminar as “not entirely true” by activists from various groups, including the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN).
The LPN said the survey had not covered the overall areas that were supposed to have been explored. This was important, as the actual local conditions differed in each environment, especially in regard to the employment of under-age immigrant workers.
Andy Hall, a former researcher working for Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research, said interviewees in the Asian Research Centre for Migration’s study had only been permitted by their employers to speak onsite at their factories, and had thus been inhibited from telling the truth.
“Accurate accounts from interviewees must be obtained away from their factories,” he added.
The Briton said the survey conducted by Chulalongkorn University had been paid for by the Thai fishery and marine processed-food sectors. “They are basically clients of CU in the case of this survey.”
Interviewees were ordered by employers to speak to the person carrying out the survey, and they were afraid of not getting paid if they said something bad about their employers, Hall said.
“Even at this seminar, which is all about immigrant workers, why are none of them here to make their statements?” he asked.
Moreover, the survey lacked information about the widely known collection of an extra Bt5,000 as an entry fee from migrant workers who apply for work at any of several tuna-processing factories, he claimed.
Workers burdened with fees
LPN director Sompong Sakaew said several cases of employment were subcontracted from one broker to another, with commissions shouldered by immigrant workers who are burdened with high application fees.
Age verification must be correctly carried out by the applicants’ countries of origin, and by Thai immigration officers, the director said.
Chanin Chalissaraphong, representative of a tuna-processing association, told the seminar that it was wrong for any factories to hire under-age workers or demand extra money from low-income immigrants.
He said employers were, however, unable to find out how old a worker was if they had lied about their age all along.
Citing reports about an incident in which weapons were stored at a factory in Pattani, Chanin said the weapons were made available for the protection of workers and staff from insurgents’ attacks – and not for use against workers in order to control them as slave labour or to intimidate or threaten them.
Suphang Janthawanich, director of the Asian Research Centre for Migration, said the survey had been conducted in accordance with standard methods.
She maintained that interviewees had not give statements in fear of their employers’ reaction.
The only unlawful practice uncovered during the survey was that employers kept immigrant workers’ passports, but 98 per cent of the activities found were all lawful, she added.