News / World

Promises unmet as Thailand tries to reform shrimp industry

SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand — Facing international pressure over human trafficking in the seafood trade, Thailand promised almost a year ago to compensate victims of slavery and industry leaders vowed to bring all fish processing in-house.

That hasn't always happened. Instead, some formerly enslaved shrimp peelers have been deported. Shrimp peeling sheds are being inspected and authorized to keep operating.

The Associated Press found that while some Thai companies that export shrimp to the U.S. have given formerly entrapped workers better jobs in-house, others still use middlemen who employ labourers in remote, guarded warehouses.

Shed owners frequently break environmental, labour or safety laws. Seventy-five per cent of the 109 inspected so far this year were cited for violations, and 24 were ordered to close.

Human-rights and media reports documenting abuse in Thailand's $7 billion annual seafood export industry have brought international pressure. Last year, the AP reported on slavery inside the Gig Peeling shed outside Bangkok in Samut Sakhon, where more than 100 people were locked inside and forced to work 16 hours a day, ripping guts, heads and tails off shrimp that entered supply chains of most major U.S. supermarkets and companies including Red Lobster, Whole Foods and Wal-Mart.

One of the workers, Tin Nyo Win, ran away and told police, who raided the factory and rescued the other workers, including his wife. This month, the couple were deported to Myanmar after being held almost a year in a Thai government shelter.

The government had said victims and witnesses of human trafficking could stay and work in Thailand for up to one year while their cases were investigated. This year the U.S. State Department commended Thailand for reforms and removed it from a global human trafficking blacklist.

Those Thai reforms — on paper — include paying whistleblowers like Win and providing victims compensation, education, employment and other assistance. But Win said he and his wife weren't even given food sometimes.

"They don't treat us like humans. They treat us like dogs," Win said hours before Thai authorities took them away.

Authorities said that although the couple were victims of modern-day slavery, they had illegally entered Thailand to begin with. Nattamon Punbhochar at the Thai foreign ministry said the couple never requested compensation and were deported in accordance with a memorandum of understanding Thailand has with Myanmar.

Col. Prasert Siriphanapitat, Samut Sakhon deputy police commander, said five people including a shed owner have been charged in Win's case. All are out on bail.

Last year, facing a boycott over abuses, major seafood groups and certifiers decided to protect workers by moving all labour in-house, banning outsourcing of shrimp pre-processing. Yet dozens of pre-processing sheds continue to operate.

Some are large factories, others nothing more than large garages. Labor advocates say there's little oversight to ensure abuses aren't occurring.

The AP recently visited a handful of Samut Sakhon shrimp sheds buzzing with workers hand-peeling shrimp on residential streets or behind walls.

"We're following rules 100 per cent ," said Boonchai Seafood director Taweesak Suralertrungson.

Documents at Boonchai show it processes shrimp for May Ao Food Co., one of Thailand's leading exporters to the U.S.

Boonchai's operations passed a government inspection. But the industry had vowed to eliminate middlemen. May Ao's shrimp carries global industry certification that says "peeling and heading of shrimp must occur in facilities owned by and completely controlled by" the processing plants. May Ao is also a member of the Thai Frozen Foods Association, which promised "to eradicate third-party pre-processing."

May Ao and TFFA officials initially said all shrimp peeling is in-house before conceding that it wasn't. TFFA President Poj Aramwattananont said May Ao's factory is too small to handle all the labour , and that there's nothing illegal about pre-processing in independent warehouses.

"We are not 100 per cent clean. You will always find some problems, but those are rare," he said.

Some Thai seafood exporters have improved working conditions. Thai Union opened a large, clean peeling warehouse where 1,200 workers get subsidized meals and opportunities for bonuses.

"I have more rights. I like it," said Thet Paing Oo, 23, a migrant from Myanmar.

He said he spent six years working 15-hour shifts at shrimp sheds without a day off. Now his salary has increased and he gets one day off a week.

Yu Wa, 35, also from Myanmar, teared up at memories of her previous shed, where she was locked inside and paid by the kilogram, not per day.

"I am treated well and the boss is good," she said. "It's much better."

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AP writers Esther Htusan in Yangon, Myanmar, and Natnicha Chuwiruch, Jason Corben and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok contributed to this report.