The HRAS Interview with Abby McGill: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand

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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.

 

Thank-you Abby.

The HRAS Interview with Dr Pengfei Zhang – Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

In recent years, China has emerged as a world leader in shipbuilding, shipowning and seafarer-supply. Why is it then that Chinese seafarers remain an invisible group as far as many of the nation’s legal protections are concerned?

pengfei-photoDr Pengfei Zhang, academic, lawyer and former master mariner completed his PhD thesis on the barriers Chinese seafarers face in achieving the same level of remuneration and rights as inscribed in some international standards. His subsequent book Seafarers’ Rights in China: Restructuring in Legislation and Practice under the MLC 2006 was published by Springer last year.

HRAS spoke to Pengfei about how the latest development of seafarers’ rights in China under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC).

How did you first get started in seafarer rights?

As a seafarer working on board international merchant ships for more than eight years, I had myself experienced unfair treatment quite often. This included low wages, long working hours, poor working and living conditions and exploitation by manning agencies.

In 2009, I started to teach maritime courses in Shanghai Maritime University. Before that, I worked as a maritime lawyer and helped many Chinese seafarers involved in maritime labour disputes. This helped me to better understand the problems and challenges of seafarers. In 2012, when my career in China was growing well, I made a decision to do my PhD in London and started my academic research on seafarers’ rights.

There were several reasons for that. The most important one was that I had seen the big picture, not just for China, but for the whole world. Shipping is very important, and seafarers are very important, but research on seafarers is relatively sparse, in particular in China. I have the right background, and I am the right person to do this, and I believe the most valuable and meaningful thing for me is to do research on this topic. I am sure that I can make unique contribution.

 

book-front-pageWhat was the aim of your research?

The overall objective of the research was to critically investigate the conditions of seafarers’ rights in China in legislation and practice; in particular, the restructuring process under the impact of the MLC. Since its entry into force in August 2013, significant changes have taken place in the international maritime industry, less so in China. The MLC entered into force in China in November 2016 after being ratified in 2015.

Although seafarer protection in China has improved significantly in the lead-up to this, there are still many serious problems. Seafarers are working at sea, out of the sight of most people on land. As a result, although Chinese seafarers have played an increasingly important role in the international maritime industry, they tend to be an invisible group compared with most workers on land.

 

What improvements have been made?

The major improvements resulting from the adoption of the MLC relate to seafarers’ pre-employment registration, physical examinations, training and recruitment services. The major reason for this appears to be that the Chinese maritime community has attached great importance to seafarers’ training, qualification and competency. These aspects are closely associated with the export of seafarers, the development of the Chinese maritime industry and increased tax revenue.

 

Employment contracts continue to be a problem. Why?

In practice, a number of problems exist that prevent Chinese seafarers from accessing their legal employment entitlements. First of all, many Chinese seafarers have trouble accessing employment opportunities, in particular those with lower ranks, such as ratings and junior officers.

According to the MLC, there should be a public recruitment system available for seafarers to ensure that they have access to an efficient and well-regulated recruitment service. China’s Employment Promotion Law also states that local governments shall establish public employment service institutions that provide labourers with free recruitment services.

But, despite the rapid growth in the economy, China has not yet established an effective public employment system, and in the maritime labour market, many recruitment and placement businesses are controlled by private manning agencies or ship management companies. Many Chinese seafarers have to pay large sums of money for employment opportunities, and they become targets for exploitation.

 

How are they exploited?

As in many other maritime nations, the nature of seafarers’ work may easily subject them to exploitation by unscrupulous shipowners, operators and manning agencies. For example, many seafarers do not have an employment contract. It is even the case that some ships maintain two separate sets of seafarer employment contracts, one real and one false, with the false one just for port state control (PSC) inspections.

Fieldwork I conducted revealed that even some major state-owned Chinese shipping companies were practising this double book-keeping aimed at evading PSC inspection.

Secondly, compared with seafarers in many countries, the wages of Chinese seafarers are still very low. Delayed or unpaid wages and substandard working and living conditions are still very common, in particular when the shipping market is poor.

As there is no relevant regulation of seafarers’ annual leave in China, many Chinese seafarers tend to have a longer annual contract and cannot be repatriated in a timely manner even when they have completed their agreed terms. Furthermore, when labour disputes arise, on many occasions seafarers cannot access effective and efficient legal assistance and remedies.

These may be common problems experienced by seafarers worldwide, but they have a bigger impact on Chinese seafarers.

 

What special issues do Chinese seafarers face?

Unlike shipping businesses which make a direct profit for society, seafarers appear to be less important than the ships on which they serve. China, despite its impressive economic performance in the last several decades, remains a developing country with relatively limited resources allocated for public service. While the Chinese government places overriding emphasis on economic development, the importance of seafarers has been placed second to fleet construction, which seems to attract greater attention.

Chinese seafarers have special profile, and they are also facing some unique problems and challenges, such as the Chinese maritime industry, Chinese maritime labour market, Chinese seafarers’ special role as temporary migrant workers, in their families and society, their difficulty in rejoining family life and society and their social status changes across time.

Furthermore, China has a very large population that includes workers from various trades and industries. Compared with builders, platelayers and miners, seafarers are only a small group, the total number of which is not sufficient to draw special attention.

 

Do labour unions have any impact on Chinese seafarers’ working conditions?

The CSCU is the national industrial union of Chinese seafarers and construction workers that is affiliated to the ACFTU. At an operational level, it has developed a clear strategy to support seafarers, in particular those employed in the foreign sector. In the past, the CSCU has made great effort in protecting and promoting seafarers rights and benefits, for example, in the adoption process of Seafarers’ Regulation, as explained in the Book.

However, the protection provided by the CSCU is far from satisfactory and cannot meet the expectation of Chinese seafarers. On many occasions, it appears to be quite weak and passive and has very limited influence at the international stage. Therefore, it is not able to provide effective and efficient assistance and protection for Chinese seafarers when they encounter difficulties at foreign ports.

In addition, with an increasing number of Chinese seafarers employed by foreign shipowners, the seafarers need the union to fight for their interests and benefits. However, dealing with international affairs requires special skills (including language skills) and many other competencies, which are lacking among many union officers.

There is a serious lack of seafarers’ participation in the process of “collective consultation”. The obviously unequal bargaining power between individual seafarers and maritime employers makes it indisputable that collective bargaining is an essential element of seafarers’ rights. However, although a collective contract has been drafted and proposed by trade union, it is actually absent in practice.

 

What changes would you like to see enacted to improve conditions for Chinese seafarers?

The major challenges to future improvement come from government authorities, the practices of the maritime industry as well as from Chinese seafarers themselves.

Since the adoption of MLC, China’s government has put considerable effort into complying with the Convention, and many changes have taken place. However, there are still significant gaps between Chinese seafarers’ existing rights and desired rights particularly regard to wages, working and living conditions, collective bargaining agreements and seafarers’ social security.

Adoption of the China’s Seafarers Act is of key importance to improve Chinese seafarers’ rights, as well as to the full implementation of the MLC. The Act has been discussed and debated for two decades, but not much progress has been made so far. The government is therefore advised to take more concrete and efficient measures to speed up the legislation process.

Furthermore, the government departments specialising in maritime affairs need to take on more responsibility with regard to seafarers’ rights, in particular flag state inspections.

A more independent, pragmatic and effective seafarers’ union should be established specially for Chinese seafarers.

It is crucial to promote best practice in the maritime industry by implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) and maintaining a sustainable maritime labour force. The implementation of CSR can attract high-quality talent, enhance a company’s image and eventually improve its marketing performance.

A skilled, loyal and well-motivated seafarer can reduce operating costs by increasing efficiency and safety and by protecting the employer’s investment in vessels and equipment. In contrast, stress, fatigue and complaints can lead to reduced performance. This is usually the reason why incidents that cause environmental damage, loss of life and loss of property occur.

It is therefore becoming more commonly accepted that voluntary CSR should be embedded into maritime business. Respecting seafarers’ rights has become a strategy with the reward of more profit than is produced by ignoring such responsibilities

 

Can Chinese seafarers take action to defend and expand their rights?

According to Chinese law Chinese workers do have rights to defend and expand their rights. However, due to the special characteristics of seafaring labour, the same as in any other countries, seafarers in China may find it is difficult to realize their rights on many occasions. For example, seafarers in China are entitled to participate in the process of Chinese labour law-making. However, in practice, it is very difficult for them to deliver their views and be involved in decision-making. This is especially because of the lack of a strong and effective seafarers’ trade union in China.

The issue is particularly important to seafarers, because their unique employment conditions are not familiar to most law-makers. Compared with the employment conditions of construction workers and miners, which have been addressed to some extent in several major labour laws, seafarers’ in-employment conditions have never attracted much concern in Chinese labour law-making.

Chinese seafarers should be more pro-active, to the extent that this is possible in domestic Chinese affairs, and participate more effectively and effectively in the legislative process in China. Under the impact of the MLC, China has started to promote tripartite negotiation platforms, and seafarers are encouraged to take part in policy-making and collective bargaining activities. There are many opportunities for Chinese seafarers to become involved and to deliver their message more clearly and loudly.

 

What reaction has there been to the book?

The book has provoked significant reaction in many sectors, including academic institutions, shipowners, ship management sectors, manning agencies and in particular seafarers. After publishing, I posted information about the book through Chinese social media and the blog has been forwarded more than 10,000 times. I have received letters and messages asking about the book, and some Chinese seafarers continue to share with me about their experiences.

 

What are you working on next?

I am doing a research for the Seafarers’ Trust on seafarers’ port welfare in China; not just Chinese seafarers but seafarers of any nationality who visit China’ ports. Meanwhile, we are editing another book: The Chinese Seafarers: understanding the largest maritime workforce in the world which will be published by Springer in the second half of 2017.

 

Thank-you Pengfei. HRAS looks forward to hearing about your progress in the future.

The HRAS Interview: Robert Robinson North of England P&I Club – Seafarers Isolated Despite Greater Connectivity


Robert RobinsonSeafarers Isolated Despite Greater Connectivity

Separation from family and friends might cause seafarers to feel isolated, but this is not the only form of isolation they can encounter. Another comes from the very technology designed to reduce it.

Better digital communication technology can compound isolation problems at sea by reducing social interaction on board. Rather than chat, play games or watch videos with other crew members, it is now all too easy for seafarers to retreat to their cabins with their mobile devices.

HRAS spoke to North P&I Club claims executive Robert Robinson about the club’s recent concerns on potential downsides of greater connectivity at sea.

HRAS: How can greater connectivity be a bad thing for seafarers?

Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Robert Robinson North of England P&I Club – Seafarers Isolated Despite Greater Connectivity

The HRAS Interview: Captain Pradeep Chawla, Managing Director QHSE & Training, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management

????????????????????????????????????A family at sea and a family at home.

There is a disconnect between charitable organizations and the seafarers they aim to help, and it’s a disconnect that extends beyond the seafarer to the, often extended, family that he supports, says Captain Pradeep Chawla, Managing Director, QHSE & Training, at the world’s largest ship management company, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management.

Captain Chawla has 27,000 seafarers in his care, and HRAS spoke to him about the passion that takes him beyond his professional role at Anglo-Eastern.

HRAS: What gaps do you see in the charitable care of seafarers? Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Captain Pradeep Chawla, Managing Director QHSE & Training, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management

The HRAS Interview: Steven Jones – 5th Annual Capital Link Shipping & Offshore CSR Forum

5th Annual Capital Link Shipping & Offshore CSR Forum “Best Industry Practices- A competitive advantage”

Steven Jones HRAS 300dpi sml sizeDoing “good”, and the “right thing” are fine and noble concepts, but for an industry as diverse as shipping it is unclear what can, should and will be done in the name of corporate social responsibility. We spoke to Steven Jones on the latest thinking on the challenges, but also the opportunities ahead.

HRAS: It is positive to hear issues of social responsibility being discussed, but do you think there is a widespread understanding of CSR?

It is fantastic that CSR is being brought to the forefront of discussions, but that is only the beginning. The very concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in shipping is perhaps as nebulous as the concept of the shipping industry itself. With so many different players, trades, and stakeholders, challenges, and opportunities across the industry, finding a united front is hugely difficult.

Since CSR first came into vogue it has been a thorny and difficult concept for shipping. Companies, academics and all kinds of associations have wrestled with definitions – but it is hard to find the message that resonates with all. There is clearly no current one-size-fits-all answer to this issue.

Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Steven Jones – 5th Annual Capital Link Shipping & Offshore CSR Forum

The HRAS Interview with VGroup’s Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers

Matt DunlopThe HRAS Interview: Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers

Seafarers’ needs are constantly evolving, and meeting them is a responsibility that global ship management company V.Group takes seriously. Human Rights at Sea spoke to Matt Dunlop, Group Director of Marine Operations at V.Group, to find out how the group cares for its seafarers.

HRAS: Tell us about V.Group?images

V.Group is the world’s leading provider of maritime services to the commercial shipping and cruise industries and an increasingly important player in the energy sector. The company delivers a wide range of marine services including technical management, seafarer management, technical support, procurement and ship supply chain management within an extensive brand portfolio including the market-leading ship management specialist V.Ships.

Continue reading The HRAS Interview with VGroup’s Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers

The HRAS Interview with Dean Summers of ITF Australia

Dean SummersSlave Ship; Death Ship; Summers Wants Change

In August 2015, ITF Australia coordinator, and fourth-generation seafarer, Dean Summers swum the English Channel to raise money for a charity that supports seafarers. HRAS spoke to him after this marathon effort to find out why he dedicates his life to seafarers’ well-being.

HRAS: What inspired you to swim the Channel?

It’s this strong emotional link to the seafaring fraternity that drives me in my career and my personal life. It’s a very natural fit to dedicate the efforts of the Channel swim towards the world’s 1.3 million seafarers, many of whom will traverse the Channel at some point in their lives. Theirs is a tough, lonely and thankless job, and they deserve more from a world that relies completely on their work. Continue reading The HRAS Interview with Dean Summers of ITF Australia

The HRAS Interview with Mr. Chirag Bahri – Seafarer’s Welfare Personality of the Year 2015

Chirag with IMO Secretary GeneralHRAS: First of all, many congratulations on your 2015 International Seafarers Welfare Award “The Dr. Dierk Lindemann Welfare Personality of the Year”. What does this mean to you and your work at the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP)?

Many thanks for your warm wishes. It was a huge honour to receive this prestigious award by the IMO Secretary General a few days back. It recognizes the sufferings of thousands of seafarers and their families affected by maritime piracy and that MPHRP, with the assistance of our partners, has been able to provide humanitarian assistance to many of them. Continue reading The HRAS Interview with Mr. Chirag Bahri – Seafarer’s Welfare Personality of the Year 2015