Thailand exports millions of pounds of seafood to the United States. Much of it is produced by vulnerable migrant workers.

Thailand is the world’s second largest seafood exporter in the world, and the United States is its largest market. Much of the tuna and shrimp products we eat come through Thailand. This growing industry is staffed largely by migrant workers, mostly from neighboring Burma.

Discriminatory immigration and labor policies leave these workers dependent on employers and recruiters, deny them the right to form labor unions, and leave little access to remedy when employers violate labor laws. Research over nearly a decade has uncovered human trafficking, child labor, debt bondage, and other egregious forms of labor rights abuses throughout the Thai seafood industry. We try to influence the Thai government to change the laws that leave migrant workers vulnerable, while working with networks of partners inside Thailand and around the world to support workers in speaking out against abusive conditions, and hold the companies that profit from exploitation accountable.

Products on U.S. grocery shelves, such as frozen shrimp and canned tuna, have been linked to labor trafficking and child labor.

Thousands of migrant workers cross the border into Thailand each year from neighboring countries, with the greatest numbers coming from Burma. An estimated 1.8 million to three million migrant workers live in Thailand, many of them unregistered. These workers are employed in labor-intensive export industries such as seafood, garment manufacturing and agriculture.

Labor registration is complex and leaves migrant workers dependent on recruiters and employers. Indicators of human trafficking are common, including document confiscation, restrictions on free movement, debt bondage, wage theft and excessive recruitment fees. Local police often overlook abuse, and have even been implicated in trafficking schemes. Discriminatory labor law prevent migrant workers from forming labor unions.

The seafood industry, in particular, has had serious concerns with labor trafficking, child labor, and debt bondage, among other abuses. The Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that up to two million people are employed in the seafood industry in Thailand, and 90% are migrant workers, but only a third of them are legally registered. In a recent report by the U.N. Inter-agency Project on Human Trafficking, 57% of migrant workers surveyed had at least one indicator of forced labor and 33% were trafficked into forced labor.

ILRF’s research into shrimp production in Thailand has uncovered a range of serious labor problems in Global Aquaculture Alliance certified shrimp processing facilities supplying major western retailers, including utilizing underage workers, nonpayment of wages and charging workers excessive fees for work permits. Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO, has documented similar conditions at processing plants for two of Thailand’s largest tuna exporting firms: Thai Union Manufacturing and Unicord. Using that research, ILRF was able to connect tuna from these two processors to each of the three biggest suppliers of canned tuna in the United States (Bumble Bee, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea). These significant contributions add to the growing evidence of systematic abuse of migrant workers in every step of the supply chain in Thailand’s seafood industry.

Vulnerable communities are best protected when they are able to protect themselves. 

Migrant workers’ rights must be strengthened in Thailand. The Thai Government, working closely with industry, has erected numerous barriers to genuine worker empowerment, capitalizing on low labor costs to expand export markets. Based on our work on the ground, we believe the following issues are most in need of immediate action to remedy the situation:

  1. Recognize migrant workers’ right to freedom of association. Migrant workers in Thailand are prohibited by the Labor Relations Law of 1975 from forming their own unions or serving in leadership positions within a union. Groups such as Human Rights Watch have documented that in practice, infringement of the rights of migrant workers expands much further, leading to severe restrictions on freedom of movement, assembly and ownership. Discriminatory labor laws must be amended so that all workers in Thailand, regardless of nationality, have the same rights to organize into their own representative groups. Industry, however, can and should take initiative to protect worker rights by voluntarily recognizing migrant groups and negotiating with them to improve working conditions at individual worksites.
  2. Reform laws governing migrant worker recruitment and employment. Migrant workers are bound to their current employer, and often their recruiter, through a complicated registration process. Workers must pay large fees up front to obtain work permits, often need to rely on a recruiter or employer to obtain documents, and have only a week to find a new employer, even in cases of abuse, before risking deportation. The registration process must be changed to give workers more time to find new employment if necessary and simplified so that workers, perhaps with the assistance of migrant worker organizations, can control the process themselves without having to forfeit essential documents to recruiters and employers.
  3. Strengthen workplace auditing and complaint mechanisms. Exploited migrant workers have few options for reporting abuse. The International Labor Organization has recommended mandating access to complaint mechanisms for non-Thai nationals, designating an institution responsible for administering that mechanism, prohibiting retaliation against workers who register complaints and ensuring those workers retain the legal status to work. It is also important that groups representing migrant workers are included in these grievance processes to build legitimacy and trust. Industry has a vital role to play in this process by allowing such groups access to workers and allowing unannounced workplace audits by independent organizations.
  4. End use of criminal defamation to muzzle free expression. Thai companies under fire for their labor practices have been effective in silencing their critics by charging them with criminal defamation. In an ongoing case, Andy Hall, a British national who reported on the human cost of cheap pineapple production in Thailand, has had charges brought against him by Natural Fruit Company. He faces two years in prison as well as up to $10 million in liabilities for reporting on the company’s abuse of migrant workers. Under the criminal defamation law, those who speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable are subject to retribution from powerful industry actors with support from state organs.