HRAS Interview: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand
It is promising that the Thai government and big industry players like Costco are getting involved in the fight against human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry, but there is more work to be done. For Abby McGill, that work focus is on empowering Thailand’s migrant workers.
McGill is responsible for coordinating campaigns around labor exploitation in globally-traded agricultural commodities at the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). Her work includes seafood from Thailand, cotton from Uzbekistan, palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia, Cocoa from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and tobacco from Malawi.
What is ILRF’s approach to dealing with labor exploitation?
We have a three tiered philosophy here at ILRF. First is worker empowerment. I partner with organizations on the ground to improve conditions by ensuring that the workers themselves have voice and that there’s democratic workplace principals being instilled in places that ultimately provide goods for Western markets.
The second is government change. We work to ensure that governments in countries that produce goods for global markets have good labor laws and that those laws are enforced. Additionally, we work to ensure that laws in countries like that U.S., or Australia or the E.U., where these goods are ultimately found, also promote good global trade that focuses on rights promotion rather than an extraction model of global commerce.
The last big part of change is industry. Here we try to hold companies accountable for what happens all along their supply chain, not only in the facilities over which they have direct control, and to promote greater transparency and accountability within long, complex global supply chains.
When you talk about the supply chain of companies are you meaning any size company or big multinationals?
We tend to focus on big multinationals, mostly because that’s an area where you can get a lot of change. What we see now in global markets is that the old relationship of somebody produces a good and goes to market to see how much they can get for it has been flipped on its head. The big multinational companies, the Walmarts and Tescos of the world, have cornered the market on retail sales to the extent that they are effectively setting prices for producers. The big purchasers of seafood, for example, at the big seafood expos in Boston, Hong Kong, Brussels dictate prices on the trading floor saying that you have to meet certain price points otherwise we won’t purchase it.
We advocate for a different approach where retailers and the big multinationals make long term strategic partnerships with their suppliers so that the supplier knows that three or four years down the line they’re still going to have demands for this product, that they can create some security for their workers, and that they’re able to convey to their customers, the big multinational brands, what it actually costs to produce this good in a way that has safe and decent working conditions for the workers who produce it.
Why do migrant workers need more empowerment?
There’s three to four million migrant workers in Thailand. Many of them are undocumented. Fewer now that Thailand has made pretty impressive strides in registering migrant workers. However, that registration process itself is quite expensive. Whether you go through the formal channels or informal recruitment channels, workers often have to take on a lot of debt.
Under Thai law migrant workers are bound to their employers. It’s very difficult to leave an employer, even if there’s abuse there, and still remain in the country legally. The incentive is really for workers to keep quiet if there are problems because they arrive in debt, they need to pay it off and they can’t leave their employer and continue to work in the country.
What is ILRF doing in Thailand?
We try to highlight problems like that and try to organize coalitions of organizations to demand for solutions. We partner with an organization on the ground called the Migrant Workers Rights Network which is an organization of migrant workers in Thailand trying to improve conditions.
We have brought together a group of organizations under the name Thai Seafood Working Group. When I started that project in early 2014, it was about a dozen organizations mostly based in the U.S. that we had assembled through other work we’d done, mostly on the child labor coalition in the cotton groups that were interested in human rights.
Now the working group is more than 50 organizations from about a dozen countries that aren’t just human rights organizations. There’s a lot of environmental groups that participate and a lot of seafood groups.
A big focus for us is the lack of freedom of association for migrant workers. Right now they’re forbidden from serving in the leadership of or forming trade unions. They can join already existing unions, but there are so few of those because Thai’s don’t work in the seafood industry. So, in essence, migrant workers are completely unrepresented. It keeps them isolated, it keeps them vulnerable, and it keeps them exploitable.
We fight hard to try and ensure that migrant workers have access to all of the fundamental rights at work in their workplace, including freedom of association.
Do the Walmarts of the world feature in improving practices in the industry?
Walmart has a few different initiatives going on in the Thai seafood sector. When big companies get involved their interventions often involve a lot of certification and auditing, but those aren’t solutions that actually empower the workers themselves. It’s somebody coming from outside to look at what’s happening in the supply chain, not developing the power from within for workers to hold their employers accountable.
There are a lot of industry solutions that are having various impacts. Some good and some not so good but the ultimate judge by what we would measure an effective intervention is does it help the workers themselves to be able to address problems in their workplaces without a third party having to be there.
One of the models that we’re trying to promote not only in seafood but in all commodities is retailers and multinational corporations should have to publish where they get the goods that are produced. They should list names of suppliers. The garment sector has had the biggest success with this. That would be the kind of traceability that I would hope for.
Is it just the shrimp industry that has problems or are there other Thai seafood industries that are of concern?
Thailand is one of the major processors of canned tuna in the world. The Thai fleet itself doesn’t actually catch much tuna. Rather, Thailand is one of the biggest importers of tuna, from countries such as Taiwan or South Korea, and then they export it. So, Thailand becomes a choke point for abuses on the tuna fleets of a lot of different countries.
We encourage the major tuna companies, like Tuna Union, to name their suppliers and to push down to their suppliers the importance of having complete catch certification from the vessel and the processing level so that consumers can know where the tuna in their can ultimately came from.
Another industry is pet food. Thailand’s a huge exporter of pet food to the U.S., Europe and Australia. Pet food is a hundred billion dollar industry across these countries, and a lot of different kinds of proteins go into it. Trash fish definitely goes into it. Other kinds of fish that are caught by Thai vessels go into it. Poultry also goes into it, and there’s horrendous cases of human trafficking coming out of Thailand’s poultry sector.
What is the Thai government achieving?
The Thai government is certainly interested in showing that it has made demonstrable progress on the issues. They have really clamped down a lot on fisheries oversight. Our assessment of those efforts is that they have focused primarily on illegal fishing and much less on the people that are on the boats.
They’ve also made some positive changes to seafood workers. For example there is a temporary provision that migrant workers in the seafood sector can change employers. They have a lot more freedom of movement in that sector which is something that we would hope that they would expand to migrant workers in all sectors.
Where we haven’t seen a lot of progress is on overall labor rights. They haven’t made significant steps towards ensuring that migrant workers are able to form their own labor unions, that they have access to remedy when employers abuse them.
One really disturbing step backwards that we are concerned about is the use of criminal defamation. Not only has Thailand made it hard for migrant workers to report when they have been abused, but they’ve made it more likely that migrant workers will be taken to court for speaking out. They can be charged with criminal defamation if they complain about an employer.
Thai law allows it and Thai prosecutors have taken it forward. The Thai government will say that it’s the Thai judicial system and we don’t want to interfere. We certainly respect that, but the fact that they allow criminal defamation to remain on the books when it’s almost exclusively used against these human rights offenders and human rights cases is unacceptable. They need to repeal criminal defamation immediately.
Have you been to Thailand and spoken with the foreign workers?
I’ve been to Thailand on a number of occasions, and I have spoken with workers every time. These workers are really far from home, they often don’t speak Thai very well, so they don’t have a lot of resources to be able to navigate Thai legal systems. They’re working in a 3D job: a dangerous, dirty and demeaning job. Most of them don’t have a lot of education, so there’s a lot of barriers to them organizing unions. The way that Thai law stacks the books against them in favor of the employers just makes it that much harder.
I am constantly in awe of our partners on the ground who stand up, and who speak out, and who are fighting for improved conditions. I think that what they have going for them is that they’re a pretty tight knit community. They tend to live all together, they look out for each other, and their immediate instinct when things are wrong is to come together and try to make things right.
However, I think that is incumbent on those in the international community who are consuming the goods that these workers produce to do everything within our power to ensure that we are supporting those efforts.
Do the men out on the fishing boats have that sense of community?
They are much more isolated, so that is harder for them. That’s why we see some of the really most egregious problems happening particularly on long haul vessels. At least for short haul vessels, those that only go out for maybe a day or a few fays at most, they largely live in the fishing communities that surround their ports. There is some sort of camaraderie there. The long haul vessels really, really are problematic.
We have a project that’s funded by USAID to try and break a little bit of that isolation. There has been a push to get satellite technology on board vessels to better document catches. A lot of that involves satellite monitoring of vessels through VMS, AIS, and other kinds of vessel monitoring systems.
We’re trying to ensure that those systems aren’t used just to monitor the fish. We’d like to see them used to get greater insight into what’s happening with the workers on those vessels and to document working conditions. We need to make sure that as the illegal fishing piece of it moves forward the human rights piece of it isn’t out of the equation, that the two are developing side by side.
What’s on your agenda for this year?
We are focusing on elimination of criminal defamation and promoting greater freedom of association rights for migrant workers.
Industry wide I think there’s some kind of interesting things going on. Greenpeace released a report at the very end of last year on the Thai fishing fleet that has prompted Nestle, a big global brand, to try and ban the practice of transshipment, a practice that, from our perspective, can lead to workers being trapped out at sea for very long periods of time.
For a long time industry has pushed back to say that transhipment is simply a part of doing business in the seafood sector given the current stocks of fish, but if Nestle can say that it’s going to ban transhipment it seems that other companies should be able to do it too. I think we’re going to be pushing really hard on this to ensure greater catch accountability and transparency.
Also, the Thai government is working with the International Labor Organization and with other actors to try to improve their labor oversight within the fishing sector. We’re going to continue to push to ensure that the work includes migrant worker empowerment.