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Fishing Labour Out of the Dark Ages

MAHACHAI, Thailand, Mar 7 2013 (IPS) - When Ko Mynt fled poverty in Myanmar for a job in neighbouring Thailand, the thought of labouring long hours in a shrimp peeling shed was far from his mind. So was this seaside town south of Bangkok. The 29-year-old had set his sights on employment in a garments factory.

Yet the route towards the job he had dreamt of was beyond his control – even though he had paid 500 dollars to a network of brokers operating along the Thai-Myanmar border. After promising work in a factory a year ago, they dumped him in one of Mahachai’s shrimp peeling sheds, where many accounts of labour rights violations have surfaced.

“I have no choice because I am in debt to the broker, who promised me a good job at a garments factory but then brought me here,” Ko says after days of hesitation before speaking. “The brokers control our salary, our life, everything.”

Such fear of brokers stems from his national status: he is one of more than two million migrant workers in Thailand who lack proper documents for employment in a range of fields from construction and farming to factories and fishing. Mahachai reflects this, with only a reported 100,000 of its estimated 400,000 migrant workers being legally registered to work in the sea food factories and the smaller shrimp peeling sheds spread across this town.

“The shrimp peeling sheds run by big companies are okay for the workers; the problem lies in the smaller sheds where workers are forced to peel shrimp from early morning till 10 at night,” Aung Myo Kyaw of the Migrant Workers Rights Network, a group monitoring the plight of foreign workers in Mahachai tells IPS. “The brokers constantly threaten the workers with police arrests and confiscating their passports if they disobey orders inside the sheds.”

Aung Myo Kyaw describes Ko Mynt as “a victim of human trafficking.” Similar accounts abound in many of the estimated 700 shrimp peeling sheds in this town, he tells IPS. “They are the most vulnerable workers here.”

But now these victims have a powerful ally: the United States government. Washington has turned its annual ‘Trafficking in Persons Report’ (TiP), into a diplomatic tool to combat modern day slavery, and to warn Bangkok that human trafficking has to end.

Over the last three years Thailand is ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List of countries under scrutiny by the U.S. State department. Failure to convince the U.S. over standards could see one of its oldest allies downgraded to the diplomatically and economically damning Tier 3 category, that includes countries the U.S. government frequently reprimands, such as Iran and North Korea.

The possibility of such a stain on a booming Thai export industry is not lost on the government and the Thai Frozen Food Association (TFFA). The Southeast Asian country has been shipping close to 7 billion dollars worth of fish and fish products annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a United Nations agency.

Among the top destinations of the country’s renowned tiger prawns is the U.S. market, which accounts for 36 percent of the exported shrimps. They are sold at supermarket chains such as Wal-Mart or offered on the tables of restaurants such as Red Lobster.

“A U.S. ruling will hit the brand and image of Thai shrimp,” Panisuan Jamnarnwej, TFFA president, tells IPS in an interview. “Nobody wants to eat shrimp produced in the Dark Ages.”

And some efforts by his organisation to clean up abusive labour practices have worked, he says, pointing to the drop in the use of child labour in the shrimp peeling sheds. “That was the result of monitoring our members, but not all shrimp peeling sheds are part of our association.”

Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul has got into the act, recently leading a delegation of Bangkok-based diplomats on a tour of seafood factories in the Mahachai area to convince them that reports of human trafficking are unfounded. The allegation of the “Thai fishery industry’s involvement in human trafficking, as well as child labour and forced labour, is a cause of grave concern,” he told the envoys.

Thailand also made efforts to convince former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton to give Thailand more time to implement its Anti-Human Trafficking Plan. “We asked Clinton to wait till we do something and I think now the U.S. will be fair in assessing us for this year’s TiP report,” Surapong tells IPS.

The U.S. government is funding a nine million dollar programme led by the International Labour Organisation to end human trafficking in Thailand. “This shows how much the U.S. wants to see the abuse end in places like the shrimp peeling sheds, where there has been little improvement, despite what the government says,” says Andy Hall, a migrant rights activist and author of a recent report, ‘Cheap Has A High Price’ on exploitation of migrant workers in sections of the Thai food industry. (END)

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