Thai tuna processors are indeed adhering to international and local labour laws in their dealings with migrant workers, according to a Chulalongkorn University research project, dispelling contrary claims by foreign human rights activists.
The study, which was revealed yesterday, just a few months prior to the expected annual review by the US State Department for its Human Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, found that businesses in the Thai tuna industry had followed the labour practices required by the International Labour Organisation and local laws.
The study did not come across any cases of migrant workers entering the country illegally, child or forced labour, human trafficking, violation of human rights or unfair labour treatment.
Commissioned by the Thai Food Processors' Association, the Asian Research Centre for Migration at the university's Institute of Asia Studies took six months last year to conduct interviews of 527 Myanmar and Cambodian migrant workers at 13 tuna plants in Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon, Songkhla, Rayong and Nakhon Pathom. Professor Suphang Chantavanich, director of the centre, said there remain some areas for improvement, but those deviations from standards mostly were due to misunderstanding of the legal provisions.
However, Andy Hall, a British human rights activist, who attended the seminar on the survey's conclusions yesterday, said the research was "not real".
Scared of losing job
"Since the interviews were conducted at the workplaces, as a person who has been working in this area for 10 years, [i think], it is unlikely that the workers would speak up. Foreign workers are so scared of losing their jobs and thus they wouldn't dare to speak the truth.
"Only two days ago I was just talking with 15, 16 and 17 year-old workers," he said. Suphang said the research team brought their own translators and the workers gave their interviews without fear.
"The workers told us how happy they are at the workplaces. Andy should not try to generalise. Wherever he found the cases, they weren't at the factories where we conducted the research," she said.
Chanintr Chalisarapong, vice president of the association and chairman of its tuna processors' club, said Hall might have run into some exceptional cases since the industry employed as many as 50,000-60,000 workers.
"Based on the [ages on the workers'] passports, every factory uses 18 years old and up workers. If Andy found 14-17-year-old workers, can he provide proof, or can he suggest a system that allows us to prove that? Right now, we abide by the Thai and international laws that use passports as proof," he said.
Thailand's food processors and frozen food operators have expressed concerns that the industry that generates more than Bt180 billion in annual export income for the country will be in bad shape if the US downgrades Thailand to the third tier of countries ranked in the TIP report, after putting it on the second-tier watch list for four years.
Results of the next annual review are expected around June.
Ghanyapad Tantipipatpong, president of association, said Thailand's processed food exports were expected to grow 5 per cent this year, thanks partly to the recovery of the tuna industry.