By Jessica Mack
Chicken of the Sea tuna may be proudly “dolphin-safe,” but is it human rights safe?
A new report from the Finnish NGO Finnwatch, a labor rights watchdog, says no.
The report, “Cheap Has a High Price,” was released last week in Bangkok in collaboration with migration experts at Thailand’s Mahidol University. It concludes a months-long investigation into the labor practices at factories of three Thai companies, Thai Union Manufacturing (TUM) and Unicord, which produce tuna, and Natural Fruit, which makes juice concentrate.
And it provides a disturbing look at what may be happening across the world to some of those working at the bottom tier of our increasingly complex and global marketplace.
All three companies cited in this report are major sellers in the global market, with high-profile parent companies in Europe and the US. TUM is a subsidiary of Thai Union Frozen Products PLC (TUF), the parent company of Chicken of the Sea. Last year, Bloomberg reported that TUF planned to double sales worldwide by 2015, including major European expansion.
The Finnwatch investigation into labor conditions at several of the companies’ factories in central Thailand found a high number of migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar working under oppressive conditions, including confiscation of travel documents, denial of work contracts or the ability to unionize, docked pay for the purchase of work uniforms, and lack of compensation or sick leave for work-related accidents.
All of this, says the NGO, amounts to sub-human working conditions and treatment that flout both national and international standards for human and labor rights.
In addition, the report says, a number of children ages 14-17 were also found to be working at some of the factories. While most employees were paid the Thai national minimum wage (about $10/day), some were not, and none were paid more than a few cents above the minimum. Finnwatch said many workers reported constant harassment from managers due to their migrant status.
The report could have major implications in Europe where a number of high profile customers rely on Natural Fruit products. One of the companies using their pineapple concentrate is Refresco, a leading European soft drink and juice maker with exclusive rights to make PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Schweppes and Unilever products in several European markets.
“These findings are extremely alarming,” said Finnwatch researcher Henri Purje. “It is unusual that a company producing directly to the international market and with many high-profile customers is involved in such gross violations of fundamental rights.”
The same, Purje contended, applies for Chicken of the Sea.
“Basic wages at the tuna factories do not cover living expenses, some employees lack written contracts and workplace safety is insufficient. Underage children from Myanmar with false passports are also working at the factories,” Purje said.
All TUM factory workers interviewed had been recruited (aka trafficked?) from Myanmar or Cambodia by Thai Golden Mile Service, a close partner of TUM. The company was accused of collecting high recruitment fees from already under-paid workers who are also not provided work contracts at all, or in their own language, the report said.
Finnwatch notes these research findings are politically extremely sensitive, since the United States is currently considering downgrading Thailand to Tier 3, an indication of serious concern, in its Trafficking in Persons list.
TUM responded via email to the allegations in Finnwatch’s report with a total denial of its findings.
Spokesperson Jennifer Poulson-Phan said: “A number of false statements have been made […] TUM does not retain any employee’s passport or work permit and all employees have the right and freedom to leave TUM at any time to work elsewhere.”
The Finnwatch report includes a table juxtaposing problematic conditions alleged by workers alongside TUM’s response.
TUM stated that it strives “to be the employer choice within the seafood industry in Thailand” and “we work closely with Thai government agencies and are regularly audited by the Ministry of Labor in Thailand and our multi-national customers.”
Many may remain unconvinced given the Thai government’s problematic record of treatment of Burmese refugees and migrants. Migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos comprise an estimated 10 percent of the Thai workforce, yet face constant threat of deportation and harassment, and often lack basic protection and rights.
Last week while traveling in Cambodia, I met Finnish journalist Hanna Nikkanen, who had just broken this story for a Finnish magazine called Apu. She had flown to Thailand to conduct investigative research of her own on Finnwatch’s allegations, and confirmed most of the inhumane treatment and conditions outlined in the report.
“The thing that struck me the most were the hostage-like conditions in which the workers live,” said Nikkanen. “The other thing was the level of collaboration between smugglers, local police and the factory owners. The workers (especially the ones that don’t speak Thai) don’t have anywhere to turn to, as they are actively told that if they try to leave, either the police or the smugglers (to whom many owe money) will get them.”
Media attention to this report, and the larger labor issues it highlights, has been growing worldwide – as has the unrest of migrant workers themselves.
After the report’s launch last week, Finnwatch got word that around 100 migrant workers staged a protest at a neighboring fruit concentrate factory (which was not included in the report) and. Finnwatch said it was told by workers that 40-50 child workers were removed from Natural Fruit’s factory. Finnwatch also heard from informants on the ground that workers were being docked additional pay and more severe restrictions were being placed on some workers for having spoken to media.
Jessica Mack is a global gender specialist and freelance writer. She is currently based in Bangkok, Thailand where she works on issues of violence against women and girls in the Asia Pacific region. More at www.jessmack.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @fleetwoodjmack