The Uniting Church’s long-term campaign to stop human trafficking and forced labour in the Thai seafood industry is starting have an impact. Thailand is the main source of seafood imports into Australia.
Uniting Church members have lobbied the Thai government to uphold the human rights of people working in the industry.
In November last year, the Thai government announced that people who move to Thailand for work are now free to change their employer within the industry. Previously, these workers needed permission from their existing employer to change jobs. This often trapped them under the control of abusive employers.
“This announcement is a very positive step forward to ending this abuse,” Mark Zirnsak , from the synod’s Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit, said. “The workers, mainly from Myanmar, need decent jobs in Thailand, as there is a lack of jobs in Myanmar itself.”
The new laws came into force on 14 November last year. The law also subjects owners of fishing vessels using crew without a valid work license or permit to a fine of up to $30,000 per crew member. The owner of the vessel will also have their fishing license revoked.
Factory operators that violate Thai labour law face up to two years imprisonment and fines of up to $75,000.
One of the most vulnerable groups of people in the seafood supply chain are those who work in subcontractor sheds carrying out work such as peeling prawns. The giant Thai multinational company, Thai Union (owner of the John West brand globally), announced that all seafood processing work will now be done in its factories.
“This is very good news, as some of the worst human rights abuses occur with small subcontractors,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“In subcontractor sheds people can be forced to work up to 16 hours a day. They are sometimes locked inside the shed to prevent them escaping.”
Thai Union reported in January that over 1,000 workers from pre-processing facilities were now employed in its factories. Thai Union is a supplier to many businesses in Australia, including Coles, Woolworths, Nestlé and Simplot.
Workers shifted from pre-processing facilities into its factories will be paid wages consistent with the minimum wage requirements under Thai law.
The Thai Union announcement was followed by a similar announcement from the Thai Frozen Food Association (TFFA), which is the peak industry association for most seafood companies in Thailand. In December last year, it promised that none of its members would use subcontractors to pre-process prawns, but would do all the work in their factories, as a safeguard against human trafficking and forced labour.
Thai Union also revealed in October 2015 that it had stopped doing business with nearly 1,200 Thai fishing boats in the last two years, as part of its responsible sourcing policy. It now sources seafood from 800 boats.
“This is good news. The Thai fishing vessels are where we have seen some of the worst abuses, including people being murdered,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“Knowing which fishing vessels the product is coming off has been a key ask of the Uniting Church in its discussions with both Thai companies and the Australian businesses buying from them.”
“We are thankful to all the Uniting Church members who wrote letters to the Thai and Australian Governments and the seafood industry in support of ending human trafficking and forced labour in the Thai seafood industry.”