Allegations of serious violations of labor and human rights have been made against four factories in Thailand that employ many thousands of Burmese. One of the firms is involved in the manufacture of famous international fruit juice brands.
The allegations, made by the Helsinki-based corporate responsibility advocacy group Finnwatch, involve factories that process and export tinned fish, fruit and juices across the globe from Japan to Europe.
Another international NGO concerned about human rights, Burma Campaign UK, has accused the Thai government of indifference to the problem.
One of the firms, Vita Food Factory Limited, engages so-called labor brokers who intimidate workers, according to Finnwatch.
“All interviewed workers, mostly from [Burma], reported that labor brokers used by Vita Food Factory unlawfully confiscated work permits documents,” said a statement from the NGO this week.
“Passports were also confiscated and many workers paid significant amounts of money to factory brokers who unlawfully deducted debts from their salaries. According to workers, factory brokers threaten and beat workers,” Finnwatch said.
In the just four factories investigated by Finnwatch for its report there are about 10,000 Burmese workers, the NGO’s executive director Sonja Vartiala told The Irrawaddy.
The factories have a worldwide market, exporting in particular to Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan.
Finnwatch said its primary objective was to persuade Finnish retail supermarket companies not to do business with the Thai firms, or else to bring pressure on them to treat their migrant workers properly.
Despite the scale of the rights problem and the broad international trade implications, Vartiala said there had been no response from the Thai government.
Vita Food claims to be one of the biggest fruit processing businesses in Thailand. It says it contributes to famous international brands including Libby’s, Liberty Gold, Sunkist and Kimono.
Finnwatch said it also investigated Natural Fruit, another major fruit processor, and two tuna fish processors, Thai Union Manufacturing and Unicord 2.
“Natural Fruit factory still confiscates work permits, prevents workers from changing employer and makes unlawful deductions from their unlawfully low salaries,” Finnwatch said.
Natural Fruit has been the subject of earlier inquiries by rights campaigners and is attempting to bring criminal prosecutions against migrant rights investigator Andy Hall, a Briton, who carried out a work for Finnwatch.
The action against Hall follows his allegations, made in a film documentary, that Natural Fruit employed illegal immigrants including Burmese children, paid wages below the Thai national minimum, and confiscated workers’ passports in a kind of debt bondage system.
The new report by Finnwatch comes as Thailand’s promised settlement of work visa issues for hundreds of thousands of Burmese workers in the country remains in chaos months after a plan was drawn up with the Burma government to resolve the problem.
Migrant workers are supposed to leave Thailand when their work visa expires in order to apply for a renewal. Plans were drawn up between the two governments to ease this clumsy logistical arrangement by allowing expiring visas to be renewed within Thailand. However, nothing has been done.
The Thai Ministry of Labor claimed this week that the Bangkok anti-government street protests had disrupted administrative activities.
There are far more illegal Burmese workers in Thailand than those with official work permits. International NGO assessments pu the number of illicit migrant laborers as high as 2 million.
“There is clearly lack of interest from Thailand’s political leaders in addressing labor rights abuses, and combined with administrative incompetence and corruption, this means there is very little progress in addressing this issue,” the director of human rights NGO Burma Campaign UK, Mark Farmaner, told The Irrawaddy.
“The impression given is that as this is happening to foreign workers, they think it doesn’t really matter,” Farmaner said.
Finnwatch’s Vartiala told The Irrawaddy that the Thai authorities had not responded to its new allegations, uncovered after the Bangkok government was supposedly taking action to stamp out unlawful labor practices.
Thailand’s Ministry of Labor told The Irrawaddy on Jan. 20 it was unable to comment on the Finnwatch report.
Some progress in ending abuse of Burmese workers was reported last week, however. Independently of the Thai authorities, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) said it had helped one group of workers at another major fish processing factory to successfully negotiate pay and employment rights which could become a model across the country.
The Thai shrimp canning industry based around Samut Sakhorn, south of Bangkok, employs large numbers of Burmese, but many are facing wage cuts or losing their jobs because of a disease which is damaging shrimp farms.
The ILRF and the Migrant Workers Rights Network helped to liaise between employees and employers in the first cooperation of its kind in the tough industry, said ILRF representative Abby Mills.
“This is an outstanding model for the industry, and one that should be followed by others,” said Mills who did not name the shrimp factory involved.