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Two big food companies have made extraordinary admissions about forced labour and a former top anti-trafficking official has fled Thailand in fear, he says, of his life. These are just the latest signs of the battle raging over a trade that has become a byword for brutality.
This week Thai Union, the owner of leading brands such as John West, described revelations that its Chicken of the Sea subsidiary’s supply chain also involved forced labour as “yet another wake-up call . . . to the entire industry”. It dropped the contractor involved and promised to no longer use outside processors by the end of this month.
But while international attention may be beginning to rein in some of the worst abuses of the $6bn Thai seafood export industry, the issue remains highly politically charged domestically: Paween Pongsirin, formerly the country’s top anti-trafficking investigator, sought asylum in Australia last week.
Official reports, media coverage and victims’ testimony have long cast a spotlight on slave ships off the Thai coast. The mostly migrant crews, often undocumented labourers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Bangladesh, are subjected to beatings, extortion and even murder. Factories that peel prawns have also used child and forced labour for products, as shown by the Associated Press report that threw the spotlight on Thai Union’s supply chain.
“It is an ugly reality that is now being fully exposed,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, the US-based campaign group. “It is now possible to make the link between the way fish are caught in Thailand and those products landing on people’s dinner plates around the world.”
Nestlé’s admission came after a report it commissioned from Verité, a charity that fights labour abuses, revealed how some workers at the group’s seafood suppliers in Thailand were sold, deceived with false promises and held in debt bondage.
“Forced labour and human rights abuses have no place in our supply chain,” the Swiss group said. “We are committed to eliminating them in our seafood supply chain in Thailand, working alongside others.”
Lawsuits have been launched in the US on behalf of consumers against Nestlé and other companies over alleged slave labour links, including Costco of the US and Thailand’s CP Foods. Nestlé won a motion to dismiss the claim against it last week while CP has said it will contest its case. All the companies say they are working to address questions raised about the seafood industry.
The Thai government says it has launched an anti-trafficking drive, including impounding thousands of boats that failed to register with the authorities.
Thai and Malaysian forces also conducted raids this year on so-called “slave camps” where migrants are often held for ransom on both sides of the two countries’ border, recovering the remains of more than 160 people.
But the wider problem of trafficking is far from resolved, with the EU warning that Thailand faces possible sanctions if it does not improve standards in its fishing industry. EU ambassadors in Bangkok this month welcomed the “political messages” given by the country but also issued a further warning about the “gravity of the situation which requires further and decisive action”.
The official Thai rhetoric also strikes a contrast with the unfolding scandal around the case of Mr Paween, the anti-trafficking investigator. In Australia last week he announced he had fled his homeland after uncovering what he said was evidence that top military and police officers were involved in human trafficking.
While Mr Paween has named no names publicly, Thai officials say they are looking into who may have threatened him. Thailand’s police chief said the force was also examining whether it could launch a defamation case against the ex-investigator, whose remarks could “damage the country”.
The deep-set causes of trafficking in Thailand and the wider region include Southeast Asia’s seaborne migrant crisis, corruption and falling profits due to overfishing, according to campaigning groups such as the Environmental Justice Foundation that recently published a three-year study of the trade. Steve Trent, the EJF’s executive director, describes large parts of the sector as characterised by “illegality, violence and abuse”. Despite this year’s advances, he is waiting to see prosecutions and a more fundamental overhaul of an industry whose reputation is far from clean.
To find out more about the FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit Stop the Traffik