BANGKOK – Western demand for Thai-produced shrimps is fuelling an epidemic of abuses, including child and forced labour, among Burmese migrants working in the poorly-regulated industry, a new report warned on Thursday.
The London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) accused Thailand of using trafficking as an “inherent” part of its economic model in order to secure higher profits, while western companies continue to look the other way.
Through in-depth interviews with several Burmese migrants, including children as young as 10, EJF uncovered a systematic pattern of abuses, fuelled by poor regulation, mismanagement and endemic corruption.
The workers – who are mostly undocumented and trafficked to Thailand through disreputable brokers – spoke of being trapped in bondage, forced to work excruciating hours with no food and regularly beaten or abused by their employers.
“If someone did not come to work they were scolded or beaten,” one Burmese migrant working at the Suphan factory in Mahachai told EJF. “The brokers scolded us, using abusive words to those who didn’t work fast enough.”
Others spoke of the horrors they witnessed en route to Mahachai, near Bangkok, from Myawaddy on the Thai-Burmese border. One migrant recalled being robbed by a gang of thugs, who demanded that their “navigators” hand over the women in the group.
“They raped [the] girls in the bush one after another,” he explained.
The report specifically pins blame on western companies for failing to implement effective auditing and supply chain mechanisms, despite importing the vast majority of Thailand’s shrimp produce.
“The consumer and the retailer have an obligation to look at these issues and address them,” Steve Trent, executive director at EJF, told DVB. “Our concern is that US retailers are not taking sufficient action against these kinds of abuses, which in some cases amounts to modern day slavery.”
The US consumes 46 percent of Thailand’s shrimp exports, which is estimated at 540,000 tonnes each year. Thailand is also the UK’s biggest exporter of shrimp. But most companies use ineffective global certification schemes that rely excessively on national laws and regulations, says EJF.
Earlier this week, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) identified serious flaws in Thailand’s industry-led certification scheme, and highlighted practically non-existent labour union rights and criminal defamation laws as key impediments to workers’ rights.
The ILRF accused US-based companies, especially Walmart, of exploiting domestic legal gaps to boost their own earnings. It follows an investigation which accused the multinational corporation of profiting from the exploitation of workers in Thai shrimp factories.
“Walmart is using its outsized footprint on global supply chains to exploit these workers,” said Abby Mills, ILRF director of campaigns. “It is the largest buyer of imported, farm-raised shrimp in the United States, the largest market for Thai exporters, and can play producers off each other to get lower prices. That is Walmart’s goal, and it unfortunately comes at a great human cost.”