The US government recently upgraded Thailand on its human trafficking watch list from Tier 3 (the worst offenders) to Tier 2. Our Food and Farming lead, Nick Kightley was in Thailand for a series of meetings on its fisheries and seafood processing sectors when that decision came through. In this long form blog, he reflects on his trip and the need for companies, trade unions, NGOs and community representatives to engage with each other to improve working conditions.
Thailand’s fisheries and seafood processing sectors have long been notorious for an often ill-treated and underpaid workforce of mainly migrant workers. And this exploitative regime has been fostered under a harsh and unfair legal framework.
Consequently, I have always believed that the US was right to place Thailand on its ‘tier 3’ list of worst offenders in 2014.
Where is Thailand now?
It remains true that Thai law and its implementation still has a long way to go before there is equal and fair treatment of all workers.
However, it was very obvious to me when I was in the country in June and July that in the case of more responsible Thai companies, we are seeing movement in terms of the treatment of migrant workers.
This is in part due to government reforms in the legal structure.
Even more recently, on August 03, during a meeting of SEAFDEC (an intergovernmental body of fisheries experts), the Thai Government signed a Joint Declaration to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing with its regional ASEAN partners.
This agreement acknowledges for the first time that IUU fishing is a regional problem and ties ASEAN states to complying with international standards and regulations.
Nonetheless, despite these advances, there’s no debating that the US decision to upgrade Thailand to Tier 2 on its 2016 watch list was controversial.
But it’s a done deal.
So, what will be important is to maintain pressure and to ensure that Thailand's government and the fisheries and seafood processing sectors have a clear roadmap for the way ahead.
It means tracking the Joint Declaration and other steps being taken by the Thai Government, and expecting that the welfare and rights of fishers’ form part of subsequent measures.
It also means working with progressive voices to embed transformational change.
And some of the changes I saw on my recent visit – both actual and in attitude – were encouraging.
New government legislation starting to have an impact
Let’s start at the top.
It’s very obvious that changes to employment and fisheries law are starting to have an impact.
Crew members are checked in and out of port by name, increasing their protection while at sea and encouraging a more stable workforce.
Computer software is starting to be introduced to allow fishing vessels to be tracked by Government officials. Not all, but some - and this number is growing.
As these measures are implemented and data acted upon, so IUU fishing and the worker exploitation it generates, should be forced out.
And boat owners and crewmen are acknowledging the benefits of tighter regulation too, as the First Mate on one fishing vessel off loading at a fish quay told me:
“The new laws and inspections were troublesome for us at first. They force vessels to be more compliant with the law. But, the laws and inspections also put non-compliant vessels [IUU fishing] out of business. This means less competition and better business for me and the crew.”
Strengthening the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Taskforce and other bodies
The Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Taskforce is a business mitigation initiative for both illegal (IUU) fishing and exploited workers, with over 25 global retailers and suppliers as members.
The Taskforce recognises the need to engage with local civil society organisations (CSOs) and understands that they can provide useful services in helping to improve dialogue and working conditions.
It also recognises the need for stronger local structures that can provide support to the reform process.
Through ETI, I will work with them to help coordinate CSO engagement; to encourage greater local ownership of long-term solutions to workers’ rights and welfare issues in particular.
It’s one of the reasons why I want to work closely with ETI’s NGO members such as Oxfam and Anti-Slavery International, as well as trades union members, to help drive forward reform.
The Taskforce also recognises the importance of coordinating with other initiatives such as the ILO Good Labour Practices Programme and advocacy bodies such as The International Labour Rights Network.
ETI’s good relationship with these organisations should help facilitate that cooperation.
Seeing progress in the top tiers of supply chains and within major companies
I saw steady progress in ensuring the welfare of workers in the top tiers of global supply chains.
Workers are generally now paid the minimum wage or just over. Overtime conditions are monitored. And Thai management is much more aware of and concerned about worker welfare.
Yet, exploitation and modern slavery remain grave concerns, particularly in the second, third and sometimes even fourth tiers of supply chains where global buyers have little or no oversight.
At those levels, labour abuse is still a high risk.
It’s also still not clear how far initiatives that are already in place will actively promote freedom of association and collective bargaining.
At ETI we see the ability to exercise this fundamental right as a crucial precursor to genuine and sustainable reform: workers who are organised are much less likely to be exploited.
That being said, I was encouraged by, for example, a Thai Union project that is already providing workers with education about their rights. They were being supported by the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), which was helping to deliver worker rights training.
Such programmes provide global buyers with an example of what progress in worker empowerment is possible.
Thai Union reports that absenteeism has fallen and worker retention has gone up. But demonstrating the business benefits of these changes will be important if such work is to be taken up more widely.
Ideally, I would also want to see many more examples of companies and workers’ organisations engaging in dialogue to feel sure that this represents a fundamental change in labour relations.
But I applaud every effort made.
Helping at an individual level and building civil society capacity
On a previous visit to Thailand in 2015, it seemed to me that it would be useful to set up a series of fishermen’s welfare centres for crews in port, along the lines of seamen’s missions in the UK.
Interestingly, the NGO Stella Maris, in partnership with other agencies, has now set up a very similar model – funded in the first instance by CP Foods (one of Thailand’s ‘big five’ food exporters).
The Fishermen’s Livelihood Enhancement Centre (FLEC) in Songkhla provides medical assistance, child care, training in worker rights, health and safety and trafficking as well as the opportunity to discuss any concerns, in confidence, with staff.
This offers the opportunity for fishermen to have a voice and to work towards securing improved employment after many years of exploitation.
Other such sponsored centres are now being considered.
I should also mention the Issara Institute. Funded by responsible companies, Issara runs a helpline and support services for exploited workers in subscribers’ supply chains.They also work with suppliers to improve their management systems.
In an ideal world, third party support services would not need to exist, and it is indicative of the extent of the problem that Issara is kept very busy. Their helpline, management and workers' support programmes offer a solution for some of the most vulnerable workers.
More broadly, there remains a definite need for much greater civil society and trade union capacity and involvement to promote good employment practices in Thailand. In particular, much more is needed to bring about equal treatment for all workers - and worker organisations and workers' voices need to be better respected.
As indicated, there’s been significant progress in driving improvements to employment practices for some workers.
This can only be welcome.
But we must also acknowledge that there remains a continuing culture among many Thai companies and Government departments of poor treatment of workers and a failure to recognise workers’ – particularly migrant workers’ – rights.
That means Thailand is not out of the woods yet.
It therefore is vital to continue to work on supporting reform at all levels.This includes supporting the efforts of local multi-stakeholder initiatives.
As part of these efforts, it will be crucially important to support the NGO groups that are collaborating with Thai companies as evidenced by FLEC in Songkhla, MWRN training with Thai Union workers, the Issara Institute's efforts and the civil society perspectives being brought to the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Taskforce.
It will also be important to boost the strength and reach of local unions.
Because ultimately, real change can only happen under national and community ownership – to drive reform and to build local institutions that will guard against the continuation and recurrence of abuse.
ETI stands ready to support such moves.
This blog was updated on 16 December 2016 to include more information about the work of the Issara Institute.