By Dr. Darian McBain
Economic migrants are in search of better employment opportunities and higher standards of living worldwide.
However, that journey is sometimes made at great personal risk to those workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) notes that around the globe migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to forced labor — a problem, for example, specifically highlighted by Amnesty International, via a recent CNBC report, that migrant workers constructing Qatar’s World Cup venues “continue to suffer abuse and exploitation.”
Southeast Asia is no exception.
Increasingly, workers from Cambodia and Myanmar look toward Thailand for economic opportunities their own homelands are currently unable to offer.
And, according to Finnwatch, not only are Thailand’s migrant workers susceptible to discrimination, but they can be coerced into paying high recruitment fees on the way from their home country to secure a job. This means migrants seeking legal employment might find themselves deeply indebted before the work begins – buried in debt that often takes years to repay.
Thai Union is actively working to combat these exploitative practices.
The company – which has a workforce in Thailand composed of workers primarily from Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, recruited through formal channels engaging licensed recruitment agents in Cambodia and Myanmar – is focused on reducing the potential for abuse and extortion by agents and brokers in the recruitment of these workers.
Debt bondage resulting from recruitment has no place in Thai Union’s workplaces. So, in 2016, Thai Union eliminated recruitment fees for all workers in its factories and processing plants, effective for all future recruitment of workers both from within Thailand and overseas.
Additionally, from 2015, Thai Union rolled out its revised Business Ethics and Labor Code of Conduct. It covers the recruitment and treatment of workers, stipulating protocols on employee welfare, benefits, wages, age, the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and non-negotiable frameworks for health and safety. The code, which all suppliers must sign and adhere to, sets a baseline for expected behavior across Thai Union’s supply chain.
The elimination of recruitment fees follows Thai Union’s continued development of an ethical migrant worker recruitment policy, which was welcomed by MWRN, whose mapping of all Thai Union’s factories and processing plants during 2016 highlighted challenges in recruitment as requiring an urgent response. Thai Union also works with the Issara Institute and provided a case study for their Slavery Free Recruitment Systems issue brief.
It is important for the industry and its stakeholders to work closely together throughout the recruitment process, and impress upon agents and brokers that verifiable ethical behavior is imperative and necessary to conducting business now and in the future.
By committing significant resources and time to dealing directly and building stronger relationships with recruitment agents and NGOs in Myanmar, and now Cambodia, Thai Union has been able to map out recruitment processes more effectively, with the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) providing oversight and supervision, thereby reducing costs and complexities.
These initiatives are the result of a shared commitment to improving working conditions for all Thai Union staff. The company has led the way in adopting stringent policies and rules within the Thai seafood industry to show everyone that change is possible. But it is essential to have partners who can help Thai
Moving forward, one of the key platforms in developing a truly sustainable future is the need for all employees to have access to safe and freely-chosen employment. The journey isn’t easy – we need to help create a new business model for agencies recruiting workers for overseas jobs.
Though there is always more that can be achieved, Thai Union will continue to do its part to stamp out problems, as well as enforce its Business Ethics and Labor Code of Conduct, ethical migrant worker program and zero-recruitment fee policy. Suppliers that fail to work to meet these standards will be unable to remain a supplier to Thai Union.
But it is paramount other leaders, both from the seafood industry as well as other industries, along with governments, NGOs, and all stakeholders, collaborate to put an end to abuses of workers in pursuit of legal employment. As long as unethical agents and brokers find willing partners in unscrupulous businesses, workers will continue to be exposed to abusive and exploitative practices in their search for legal employment and better lives.