LABOR IN THAILAND: WAGES, FACTORIES, FEMALE WORKERS, LOW UNEMPLOYMENT AND CHILD LABOR

LABOR IN THAILAND

Labor force - by occupation: agriculture: 40.7 percent; industry: 13.2 percent; services: 46.1 percent (2011 est.) Labor force: 38.9 million (2011 est.); country comparison to the world: 16. [Source: CIA World Factbook*]

Unemployment rate: 0.7 percent (2011 est.), country comparison to the world: 3. 1 percent (2010 est.). The unemployment rate has been very low—often between 1 and 2 percent—for some time. Unemployment, youth ages 15-24: total: 4.3 percent, country comparison to the world: 125; male: 3.7 percent; female: 5.1 percent (2009). *

Thailand’s labor force was estimated at 35.5 million in 2006. About 39 percent were employed in agriculture, 38 percent in services, and 23 percent in industry. In 2005 women constituted 48 percent of the labor force and held an increasing share of professional jobs. Less than 4 percent of the workforce is unionized, but 11 percent of industrial workers and 50 percent of state enterprise employees are unionized. Although laws applying to private-sector workers’ rights to form and join trade unions were unaffected by the September 19, 2006, military coup and its aftermath, workers who participate in union activities continue to have inadequate legal protection. According to the U.S. Department of State, union workers are inadequately protected. In 2006 Thailand’s unemployment rate was 2.1 percent of the labor force. [Source: Library of Congress, 2007*]

In 2006 the services sector, which ranges from tourism to banking and finance, contributed 45.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and employed 38 percent of the workforce. In Thailand there has been a long-term shift from agriculture to manufacturing and services, but as of 2006 about 39 percent of the workforce was still employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, although this sector is responsible for only 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). *

Throughout Thailand, but especially in Bangkok, the traditional skyline with its Buddhist temples was becoming overshadowed by Western-style buildings and skyscrapers. Construction was done mostly by laborers who usually lived on site with their families. In 1980 there were more than 373,000 construction workers (79 percent of whom had once been farmers) living in temporary housing, which typically measured only 3 to 4 meters square and had a door but no windows. Workers' compensation and paid sick leave were almost nonexistent, and illness and inadequate sanitation were common in these shantytowns. Although public and private agencies were becoming aware of the seriousness of the problem from both a health and a legal point of view, the transient nature of the burgeoning construction community made this population difficult to serve. In the urban areas, modern development and outward prosperity often masked deficiencies in basic infrastructure that arose from rapid and unplanned growth. Urban planners were confronted with traffic congestion, housing shortages, and air, water, and noise pollution.

Thailand has reasonably powerful labor unions. In 2005 they threatened to go on strike unless the minimum wage was raised. At that time the minimum wage was $4.21 a day, which workers complained wasn’t enough to buy powdered milk for their children. Strikers at Suzuki plant have blocked gates and armed themselves with slingshots and clubs. Efforts to unionize have been stifled by house unions formed by management.

Labourers in Thailand often toil under the hot sun with their faces and bodies completely Construction workers sometimes wear coverings over their face made of two-toned cloth with holes cut for the eyes. Workers in dusty zinc warehouses wear sunglasses atop a facemask adapted from an old denim shirt.

Work Hours and Wages

The average office worker in Bangkok earns about $140 a month in the early 2000s. Men work 50.6 hours and women work 49.1 hours. [Source: Roper Starch Worldwide, based on interviews in 2001 and 2002]

Thailand's daily minimum wage is now around 300 baht ($10) a day. The daily minimum wage rose by an average 25.5 percent in January 2013, depending on the region. This was on top of a 40 percent nationwide increase in April 2012. The minimum wage in 2005 was $4.34 a day. In July 2005, the minimum wage was raised to 181 baht ($4.34) a day from 175 baht a day. The decision was made by Thailand’s central wage commission, which includes union, employer and government representatives. According to the Bangkok Post in 2007, 27 percent of the national work was paid less than the minimum wage.

Average manufacturing wage in 1994 (dollars per day): $6, compared to $1.6 in China. Average hourly wages in Asia (1997): 1) $0.40 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; 2) $0.90 in Shanghai, China; 3) $1.30 in Manila, the Philippines; 4) $1.80 in Jakarta, Indonesia; 5) $3.00 in Bangkok, Thailand; 6) $4.60 in Kuala Lumpur; 7) $6.20 in Seoul, South Korea; 8) $7.30 in Hong Kong; 8) $7.50 in Taipei, Taiwan.

The real wage rate between 1978 and 1985 remained the same for most of the country, but in some regions, such as the North, it dropped from B1.81 per hour to B1.66. Only in Bangkok did wages increase--from B3.64 to B4.20--during the period. Real wages were stagnant because minimum wage adjustments were not always closely linked to inflation rates, and compliance with the minimum wage laws was not observed by the various sectors of the economy and regions of the country. Minimum wage laws were first introduced in April 1973 after the legalization of unions in 1972. At the outset, the laws covered only Bangkok. They were subsequently applied to the entire country, which was divided into three regions with three different scales for various types of activities; agriculture and government administration were exempted. By 1982 minimum wages in Bangkok had been raised by 100 percent; those in other regions had been raised by 50 to 70 percent. [Library of Congress, 1987] History Employment and Unemployment in Thailand

The average annual rate of employment growth in the 1970s was 2.7 percent, compared with 2.9 percent in labor force growth caused by rapid population growth in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, unemployment reached 1.7 million in 1985, which corresponded to an unemployment rate of around 6.3 percent. Agriculture was the major employer with about 69 percent of total employment in the mid-1980s, a decline from 84 percent in 1960. Between 1970 and 1983 manufacturing increased its share of the total employed labor force from 4.1 percent to 7.4 percent. Commerce increased from 1.6 percent to 8.7 percent, and services from 7 percent to 10 percent during the same period. [Library of Congress]

The work force had gone through some structural changes in terms of age and sex. The fastest growing age-group in the 1960s was eleven- to fourteen-year-olds. In the 1980s, that age-group dropped as a result of a falling birth rate in the early 1970s and increasing primary and secondary school enrollment. By the mid-1980s, the fastest growing group in the work force was aged between twenty and thirty, with increasing participation by females. The proportion of women employed went from 66 percent in 1971 to around 70 percent by the mid-1980s. Female employment was highest in commerce with 54 percent in 1979, followed by 50 percent in agriculture, 43 percent in industries, and 36 percent in services. *

In terms of regional distribution, the North had the lowest rate of labor force growth, with 3 percent between 1971 and 1985, followed by the Northeast, with 3.3 percent as a result of limited job opportunities and migration. Bangkok had the highest labor force growth with 6.9 percent. Regional growth of the labor force depended partly on the level of education. An increasing (although still small) number of new entrants in the work force had received a higher education. In 1971 the percentage of the total labor force that had an elementary education was 90.2. This figure declined to 72.6 percent in 1985. For people with lower and upper secondary education, the share went from 4.8 percent to 10.4 percent during the same period. The percentage of the labor force with vocational training jumped from 1.9 percent to 10.4 percent between 1971 and 1985. Yet unemployment in Thailand for those with a college or vocational education rose from 8.4 to 9 percent by the mid-1980s, mostly because of an average increase of 13.7 percent per year in the educated work force between 1977 and 1985. *

Thai Work Ethic and Making Work Fun

A farmer’s saying goes: “Our backs are to the sky, our faces to the ground...forever.” But at the same time the Thai word ngan means both “work” and “party.” The two terms are necessarily contradictory. It has been said the best functioning offices in Bangkok are ones in which work is treated like a social activity and people are motivated by friendly competitions that makes otherwise dreary work interesting. Some managers say this strategy works better than strictly offering economic incentives.

One person wrote in a forum on thaivisa.com: “There has been some heated discusson of whether Thai people are "hard working" or not. Of course we all know that this is highly variable from person to person and that every culture has some hard working motivated people and some who enjoy life in other ways. I'm wanting to know if people think that the work ethic is part of the Thai culture. By "work ethic" I mean the idea that it is good or virtuous to work hard or diligently to obtain a goal and also that goals requiring work are more noble than those that do not. [Source: thaivisa.com +]

“Personally, I think that Thais see hard work as an indication of a sort of failure or lack of ability. I think that Thais believe that a successful or capably person does not have to work hard and is a sign of their superiourity. The higher you are in the social structure the less work you need to do. Based on my five years in Thailand and work with a Thai company as R&D Staff, I observed that many of our workers were in shape to work hard and willing to be trained and eager to learn something more but the majority were not able to handle responsibility...They prefer not to learn more because the more you learn, the more you know, the more you know then the more work in your job. They probably hate this. They just would like to work, go home and enjoy their life even if they don’t have much money in their hand. "Easy go lucky." Of course some workers are very smart: since they get a small wage they work only based on that. Our company offered free basic AUTOCAD training but only one worker eager to learn and stay without any overtime pay because the training was scheduled after work. It was an opportunity to learn and upgrade oneself but no one was interested.” +

Another person wrote in the forum on thaivisa.com: “I've had 25 years experience with Thais as employees, as friends, and as co-workers. My impression is that they do have a work ethic, and do consider working hard as a positive trait. However, the Thai work ethic unlike its western counterpart expects work to be fun and does not apply in situations where working hard equals misery. Thais are quite creative at finding ways to make work fun wherever possible, and a smart employer will understand and facilitate this. Also, Thais work best together and do not like to be alone; again, a smart employer will accept this and allow for adjustments to workplans accordingly. Lastly, the work ethic coexits with a number of other ethics of equal or greater importance to Thais...such as fitting in with the group, not losing face, and personal loyalties. As a supervisor I found it important to know the group dynamic and work with it rather than ignoring it or trying to butt up against it. It was also crucial to nurture a personal bond with staff. A sense of personal loyalty to me based on our relationship led them to work very, very hard under difficult and sometiomes dangerous conditions. Work ethic alone wouldn't have done that. Thais view their jobs in a personal manner. Its not just what you are supposed to do, but who you are doing it for and how you feel about them that determines the level of effort. +

“The responsibility thing has to do not with responsibility as we understand it but with concerns for group harmony, not antagonizing others by seeming to try to stand out, and not acting above one's station. Position in Thai society is made up of a lot more than job title...it also involves age, family, etc. To ask someone to take on a position that puts them above someone older or higher social status than they puts them in a very awkward bind. Lastly, Thai society is built around rote rules and people know exactly what they can expect when they act according to them, liek a well choreographed ballet. Asking someone to take on something unfamiliar or new -- or inconsistent with their established place in the group -- puts them in a risky position where they aren't sure what will happen. I found that if one understands all this and talks supportively and empatheticaly with Thais about how they feel, these concerns can be expressed and addressed together. Last but very important: Thai culture does not distinguish between " professional" and " personal"; it is all personal and when foreign bosses or coworkers attempt to disregard the personal element it is seen as cold and unkind. (Same in the Philippines). They expect to be seen as whole people and treated as such, and to have their personal concerns given as much weight as purely work-related concerns. Of course, like any comment on any culture, these are generalizations and individuals within the culture will vary enormously. And the " elite" of the country are a whole nother ballgame entirely. Fortunately they aren't typical of most Thais. +

Multiple Jobs, Contract Labor and Fees for Jobs in Thailand

Many people have multiple jobs. An office worker might drive a tuk uk at night. A teacher might give private lessons on the side. The reasons for this are obvious enough: to make money. In many cases to secure a good job, Thais have to pay hefty job placement fees to their employers or employment agencies.

In April 2007, the Bangkok Post editorial read: “A source of suffering is the contract labor system under which employers outsource recruitment, often to brokers. Factory workers enter the system via brokerage firms and receive no benefits or bonus payments because their contract is with the recruitment firm, which is technically their ‘employer. They are paid through the broker who takes a commission through ‘deductions.’ There are no holidays or provisions for annual leave because their status is temporary. Before the contract is up they are required to resign and are then re-hired to perpetuate their status.” [Source: Bangkok Post, April 28, 2007]

This system bypasses the safeguards in the labor law and nullifies any legal obligation for the employer to provide such necessities as an annual medical check-up, job security or maternity leave. In a few cases, women who become pregnant have been fired with no compensation. This undermines the concept of social justice. [Ibid]

Working Women in Thailand

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: Thai women “are being given opportunities that they were not provided with before the 1990s. Women are still not being treated as equal to men, but the gap is narrowing. Previously, women were unable to hold the same jobs as many men in Thailand. Historically, it was a women’s job to take care of children, and tend to the household. Since the 1880s, and especially during the Vietnam War, many women have worked as sex slaves. Only within the past few decades had Thai women been present in the formal work place. The heaviest concentration of women at the lower end of the occupational hierarchy is in the service sector as domestic helpers, as restaurant and snack bar workers including cashiers and waitresses, and as entertainers, a euphemism for prostitution. According to the World Bank (2011), in 2008, 45.4 percent of women were employed in the nonagricultural sector. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

Now, Thailand is making tracks as female professionals are playing a larger role than ever before in the workplace. The participation rate of women in the Thai workforce is higher than the average Asian participation rate of women. Although women still do not hold many high positions of power, there is excitement when they do. “It is always big and cheering news in the media when a Thai woman comes into a significant work position never before held by a female.” These women are being credited for the growing success of Thailand. “Women have been and continue to be key contributors to Thailand’s remarkable growth. Over the past two decades, women’s activities have expanded in all spheres, owing to robust economic growth, a higher level of education, and a falling fertility rate.” The private sector has really contributed to women’s involvement in the work place. “The rapid expansion of the private sector has opened new opportunities for women. In 2007, 35.8 percent of female workers were private employees.”Overall, Thailand’s great strides of equality in the work place will continue, and hopefully carry over and make an impact in other areas as well.

The book edited by Tim G. Andrews and Sununta Siengthai (2009), which is entitled The Changing Face of Management in Thailand , provides lots of valuable information about women and how their roles are steadily improving within the work place. Especially the chapter by Natenapha Wailerdsak (2009) explores women CEOs and women in power who are now beginning to set an example for the rest of the country. She also provides some interesting statistics and case studies. The country profile for Thailand by the World Health Organization (WHO) (2005) on “Improving Maternal, Newborn and Child Health in the South-East Asia Region” provides detailed information on all of the initiatives undertaken to help prevent the mother and infant mortality in Thailand. It talks about preventative measures being taken against HIV/AIDS, as well as discusses the then recently reformed healthcare laws in Thailand. The 2007 report entitled “Stateless and Vulnerable Human Trafficking in Thailand” by the Washington, DC based non-profit organization Vital Voices Global Partnership does a nice job exploring the dangers of sex trafficking and its effects. It discusses why trafficking is such a big industry in Thailand and how the country has come to rely on it. One of the many news articles covering sex trafficking in Thailand is the one by Christine Gorman (2004), published in Time Magazine . It does an excellent job in explaining the sex trafficking problem in Thailand to the uninformed reader.

Factory Workers and Female Workers in Thailand

Many Thais work at factories that are either directly owned by foreign companies or produce products for them. Workers at the Suzuki plant make an average of $2,400 a year. Thai workers at a Toyota factory near Bangkok sing company songs. Nike has created industrial zones with recreational facilities, gardens, ponds and a village-like environment. They hire people with handicaps and a sixth grade education, and provide low interest loans to people who want to start their own business and training for new agricultural technologies.

In Thailand and the Asia-Pacific, the concentration of women in export-driven industries, such as garments, textiles and electronics, is much higher than men. Many girls and young woman are drawn to jobs in the cities, where the girls often live in crowded dormitories and send their money home. In the 1990s, A girl employee at a textile sweatshop typically worked nine hours a day, six days a week for $2 a day. This was considered a lot of money in the slums, where a street meal cost around 25 cents. Wages are better now.

The mother of a girl working at a sweatshop in Bangkok told the New York Times, “It's dangerous work. There's lots of machinery, and sometimes it catches her hands. Twice the needles in the machines went right through her hands. But the managers bandaged up her hands, and both times she got better again and went back to work." Even under these circumstances the mother’s biggest worry was that her daughter would loose her job.

Reuters reported: “Former Thai textile worker Nongnuch Thansoongnern, 39, left her home in Lopburi Province 11 years ago to work at Wa Thai textile company, where her 5,700 baht monthly salary was more than twice she could ever earn as a farmer. Now, two months after she was laid off because of declining factory orders, the former quality control officer makes ends meet selling fruits and vegetables near her old factory. She wakes up at dawn each day to buy produce at the market and then travels by bus to sell her wares at a spot in front of a local convenience store where she stays until nine at night. “There are too many sellers and not enough buyers, but at least I can still eat something,” Thansoongnern said. “It’s better than eating nothing.” [Source: Thin Lei Win, Reuters, August 2, 2009==]

Factory accidents are not uncommon. Twelve workers were killed in an explosion and fire at a paint factory that employed over a thousand people. The week before 20 people died when a Thai Army arsenal blew up.

Female Workers Hardest Hit in Economic Downturn

In 2009, when Thailand was caught up in a recession caused by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, Thin Lei Win of Reuters wrote: “When a major swimwear factory in Bangkok found its sales plummeting in the downturn, it laid off about 1,900 workers, almost all of them women. That didn’t surprise labor activists, who say women are the most vulnerable workers in recessions, especially in low wage industries in developing countries where gender equality lags. [Source: Thin Lei Win, Reuters, August 2, 2009==]

“Even before the crisis, there were differences in the labor market situation between women and men,” said Gyorgy Sziraczki, a senior economist at the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Asia-Pacific headquarters. “Fewer women are working then men, and women also have a much larger share of vulnerable employment. The crisis, to a certain extent, has widened the gap.” ==

Lucia Victor Jayaseelan of Committee for Asian Women, a Bangkok-based network of more than 40 women’s groups in 14 Asian countries, said women would form the majority of the up to 27 million expected to lose their jobs in the Asia-Pacific region this year. “Because the sectors that are affected are the manufacturing sector, tourist sector and migrant workers, it will be at least 80 percent to 90 percent women,” Jayaseelan said. “We have a growing informal sector and a growing migrant population [predominantly women], completely unprotected by legislation or any form of social security.” Wage gaps between men and women, a bias toward males as perceived breadwinners and the multiple roles women play today have also made female workers more vulnerable, experts said. Even for those who have found jobs after being retrenched, the work is usually more menial and even more poorly paid. ==

Garment worker Chalad Chaisaeng is a case in point. After working for 15 years at the Bangkok swimwear factory, she is struggling to support her two children, ill husband and parents with her severance pay of 110,000 baht (US$3,300). “I did not expect the company to do this. I am a good worker,” Chaisaeng said. Women like Chaisaeng are stuck between a hard life in the city they now call home and few job opportunities in rural areas where they come from. Many are the main breadwinners in their families, single daughters or divorced mothers and wives with unemployed husbands. Governments in Asia need to take this in consideration when proposing economic stimulus packages, said the UN Fund for Women (UNIFEM). In its analysis of stimulus packages in 10 countries, the agency said most fiscal spending was directed toward male-dominated sectors and measures do not target informal sectors where the vast majority of workers are female.==

Experts said whatever the shape of the recovery, the labor market would take longer to recover and there were concerns that as female workers lose their jobs, any gains in gender equality would be lost. “Women made some progress in terms of gender equality in the last decade or so,” Sziraczki said. Women entering the labor force have changed the “status of the women within the family, within the society,” he said. “If this trend of unemployment is long term, if women cannot go back to their jobs soon, this process can come to a halt and reverse to a certain extent,” Sziraczki said. For Chaisaeng, her immediate concern is her next pay check. “I thought our jobs were secure,” she said. “Now I don’t know what to do.” ==

Child Labor and Slavery in Thailand

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) about 1 million children in Thailand are victims of labor abuse. They have been used as beggars, made to do housework and forced to work in the fishing, oil and service sectors. Some have been used to smuggle drugs and contraband and forced to work in sweatshops or the sex industry. By one estimate 300,000 children in Thailand work in slave like conditions in sweatshops and brothels.

At one time it was estimated that there are 8½ million working children between the ages of 13 and 18 employed in Thailand. Some thought the true figure was higher because of the difficulty in coming up with numbers for services provided in the "informal sector." Many work for more than eight hours a day for less than minimum wage or nothing at all. Many are not even Thais. According to the Bangkok Post many are from Myanmar or Cambodia.

Many of the children involved in child labor are recruited by agents who lend money to parents and then demand the services of their children to pay off the debt in an arrangement that has a lot in common with slavery. In other cases parents are paid directly for the labor of their children. One UNICEF representative told Reuters, "It's the new slave trade. The new phenomenon of debt bondage is emerging in areas like the Philippines and Thailand and beginning in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

The loans parents range from $80 to $2,000 and the child is under contract to work until the dept is paid off. Often the wages go directly to the agents, who rarely pass it on to the family as they had promised. The work ranges from toiling for 12 hours a day in a sweatshop factory, to working as a domestic servant to servicing clients as a prostitute. The parents rarely informed of the nature or the conditions of their child's work.

Slavery was abolished in Thailand in 1906,. However, Thailand was one of 19 nation criticized in a 2002 State Department on slave trading. The report said it had made no effort to stop the commerce of human being who are forced to work in brothels, sweatshops and other involuntary servitude. There were reports in the 1990s of children being bought for as little as $7.50 and put to work as beggars in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and stories of back alley businesses in Phuket that kidnaped and sold infants.

There are labor laws that ban hiring children under the age of 15 and laws on the books to protect children but they have relatively little impact on the problem. Thailand’s Child Protection Act, passed into law in the early 2000s, like the other laws is poorly enforced.

According to the World Bank: “Although the incidence of child labor fell sharply as growth accelerated in the early-1990, there remains a compelling case for government intervention to deal with child labor. About 1.6 million children (below age 15) remain out of school, and many of these working children are employed under conditions that are harsh. The counterpart of child labor is non-completion of primary and junior secondary school, and this should be one target for policy. Since the main constraint appears to be the ability of households to finance education, a promising measure would be a direct subsidy for junior secondary school attendance targeted to the hard-core rural and urban poor. This should be supplemented with more vigorous enforcement of regulations to improve employment conditions for child labor and prohibit its use in certain areas, and specific project interventions whereby communities and NGOs work with government agencies in targeting particular activities or areas in which child workers face persistent problems. [Source: World Bank]

See Human Trafficking and the Sex Industry

Foreign Workers in Thailand and Thai Workers Overseas

In the early 2000s it was estimated 1.2 million foreign workers work in Thailand, with about 400,000 of them being legal). Most were Burmese, with lesser numbers of Cambodians, Chinese, Laotians and Vietnamese. They work in factories, sawmills, fishing boats, construction sites, agricultural fields, gas stations and at homes as domestic helpers. They do many of the jobs that Thais don’t want to do because they too dangerous or too physically demanding. A United Nations study found that Thailand needed at least a half million foreign workers to keep their economy running smoothly.

Initially the foreign workers were welcomed. In 1996, the Thai government relaxed labor laws to supply workers for a labor shortage in the construction, agriculture and fishery industries. After the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98 when Thais were more desperate for jobs the immigrants were the targets of deportation and discrimination. There were worries that they took jobs away from Thais and would strain the health care and social services. They were also blamed for crime and dealing drugs.

More than 260,000 workers were repatriated. Most were Burmese and Indonesia workers. One Burmese worker told Kyodo News, "Life is very hard here. You don't known when the police will knock on your door, wake you up, arrest you and deport you. But still it is better than our homeland.

Since the deportations foreign workers have been returning, Many illegal Burmese immigrants work in textile factories. Some factories have been set up in towns near the Myanmar border to exploit them. In spite of terrible conditions hundreds of illegal Burmese immigrants live by a garbage dump near the Thai border town of Mae So, earning about $1 a day collecting plastic.

Hundreds of Burmese immigrants have been arrested for illegal entry. Some have died. In April 2008, fifty-four migrant workers from Myanmar suffocated to death in a container truck as they were being smuggled from Myanmar to Thailand. A total of 120 migrants were placed upright in a locked container and began passing from a lack of oxygen. A survivor said the migrants were two hours into their journey in Thailand’s Ranong Province near Myanmar when they began collapsing. One survivor told AP, “I though everyone was going to die. If the truck had driven for 30 minutes more, I would have died for sure.” The driver, who abandoned the truck, was sought by police.

About 140,000 Thais work abroad. Many are in the Middle East. They make money to send home to their families, start up a shop or pay off their farm debt. To get the jobs they often have to pay high job placement fees. Thais have worked as farm labor in Hawaii. In May 2011, a Los Angeles-based farm labor contractor was ordered to pay more than $340,000 by a court for failing to properly treat and pay Thai farm workers in Hawaii. The same company was investigated by the FBI for human trafficking.

Burmese Workers in Factories on the Thail-Myanmar Border

Reporting from Mae Sot, a remote town on Thailand's border with Myanmar, Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post, “Over the past eight years, textile and shoe factories in the Thai capital of Bangkok boomed, churning out Levi's jeans and Reebok sneakers to meet record demand in the United States and Europe. When orders bested their capacity to fill them, Bangkok factories subcontracted work to new factories that sprouted up on Thailand's long and porous western border,” where “thousands of Burmese risked their lives in a quest for jobs in Thailand. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, March 05, 2009 <<]

“Lamin, a 25-year-old orphan living with relatives who could no longer support her, spirited herself across the Mae Sot river in an inner tube in late 2006. She landed work easily in a Thai factory making linings for pants with 800 other women. Working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, she earned $100 a month. Thirty percent went back to her employer to cover room and board. She still managed to send money home and pocket almost $20 to $30 a month. "Yes, it was tough" Lamin said, "but it was still better than Burma." <<

“When the global economy went code red, Thailand's exports collapsed. The factory where Lamin worked began losing contracts. In mid-February, her employer joined dozens of others shutting down in the region and adding to a swelling refugee crisis. All 800 Burmese workers at Lamin's job site were fired. <<

“Tucking away her $350 life savings, she tried to join many of her jobless co-workers crossing back into Burma. On the way, she was shaken down by Thai police who are conducting crackdowns in the area as public opinion shifts against foreign workers in hard times. Now penniless, she is living in a halfway house in a dusty corner of town, sleeping on a concrete floor and hoping to persuade her old employer to fund her return home. "I don't want to go back to Burma. It is a horror, there is only poverty, no jobs," she said, eyes downcast as she spoke through a translator. "They only wanted us in Thailand when they needed us. Now, they just want us gone."” <<

Exploited Burmese Shrimp Factory Workers in Thailand

Reporting from Samut Sakhon, Thailand, Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote in The Nation, “Labour exploitation, human trafficking and bondage of migrant workers from Burma continues in Samut Sakhon's shrimp-processing factories and onboard trawlers despite the passing of an anti-human-trafficking law in 2008, said Sompong Srakaew, founder and director of Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN). Exactly how many workers are trapped in bondage inside shrimp factories or lured and forced to work on deep-sea fishing trawlers is unknown. But, Sompong, who worked in this area for eight years, estimates about 30 per cent of the 400,000-plus Burmese workers in the province are exploited beyond Thai laws. [Source: Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation, February 28, 2012]

Bosses confiscate work permits, temporary passports and identity cards so that Burmese in fish-processing factories cannot seek employment elsewhere. Worse still, some are held in small factories and not allowed to leave the compound and forced to work like slaves.Young migrant men are also being trafficked into forced labour aboard deep-sea fishing boats via false documentation with the aid of corrupt Thai officials and police. "It's hard to pin down the figures by making an estimate," Sompong said. "But they are definitely there and they end up as virtually slave labour." Sompong said he took a group of Chulalongkorn University graduates to some factories in Samut Sakhon two weeks ago. But they only saw high walls and fences that looked like prisons from the outside. And no one could enter.

Cheap Labor and the Thai Shrimp Industry

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “ Burmese migrants are the backbone of a Thai shrimp industry ....Rights groups say that overseas demand for shrimp products in greater volume has fueled a culture of exploitation in the Thai industry. They insist that the failure of foreign companies to sufficiently verify the origin of the shrimp they import allows abuses to persist. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, September 19, 2012<>]

“If you look at the cost of shrimp overseas, it’s very, very cheap, and that comes from the exploitation inherent in the shrimp industry,” says Andy Hall, an expert on migration at Mahidol University who tracks Burmese labor in the Thai seafood industry. Brisk business with major U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam’s Club and Red Lobster pumps more than $1 billion in revenue each year into the Thai economy, the second largest in Southeast Asia. As Thai living standards have risen, a shortage of unskilled labor has attracted tens of thousands of Burmese migrants looking to escape the poverty and job scarcity that has gripped their homeland for decades. <>

“Most head to Samut Sakhon province, the heart of the processing industry just south of the capital, Bangkok, where modern facilities line the highway alongside fast-food chains and car dealerships. The more prominent factories are the size of football fields, with neon signage and billboards that feature smiling children. But there’s a darker side behind the scenes, activists say. Of an estimated 400,000 migrants at work in the province, only about 70,000 are legally registered. The rest are employed illegally in anonymous peeling sheds that supply the larger companies that must fill massive orders from abroad. At this lower end of the supply chain, according to migrant activists, crooked brokers and employers trap scores of Burmese in abusive conditions tantamount to slavery, particularly in the shrimp industry. <>

“The small factory owners know that most of their workers are undocumented, so they can control the workforce however they want — such as locking workers in until they finish their work,” says Sompong Sakaew, a labor activist based in Mahachai, the provincial capital. “There are also teenagers between 12 and 17 years old in the workforce.” <>

Exploited Labor in the Thai Shrimp Industry

Reporting from Mahachai, Thailand, Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “At an age when she should have been in a classroom, Thazin Mon discovered her knack for peeling shrimp. To help support her Burmese migrant family, the 14-year-old pulled 16-hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than $3 a day. “I am uneducated, so I work. I have to work bravely,” she says. Although she was the best peeler in the factory, speed was never enough. Mon was beaten if she slowed down, she said, and when she asked for a day off to rest hands swollen with infection, her boss kicked her and threatened rape. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, September 19, 2012<>]

“Problems for Burmese migrants typically start as soon as they link up with brokers who promise steady work and a decent salary, only to sell them into a nearly inescapable cycle of debt bondage. Min Oo, 28, a Burmese farmer who lost his home in a flood, said he paid a broker the equivalent of $500 to smuggle him across the border to Samut Sakhon, with the guarantee of a minimum-wage (about $10 a day) factory job. Instead, he said, the broker sold him into a waking nightmare, with 18-hour workdays in a shrimp-processing factory and net earnings of no more than $20 a week, leaving almost nothing to send home. <>

“In some cases, migrant workers and rights groups allege, police officials or their relatives hold an ownership stake in unregistered peeling sheds. More commonly, the critics say, the authorities or those they protect shake down undocumented workers for bribes to supplement their incomes, knowing that the migrants would rather pay up on the spot than be deported to Burma. <>

Combating the Use of Child Labor in the Thai Shrimp Industry

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “Despite occasional police action and robust anti-trafficking laws, Sakaew, the labor activist, estimates that fully a quarter of the 1,200 to 1,300 factories in Samut Sakhon province are unregistered and, therefore, ripe for abuse. With so much profit-induced apathy on the Thai side, activists say reform pressure must come from Western companies whose trade partnerships drive the shrimp industry. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, September 19, 2012<>]

It is difficult to establish precise links between the larger Thai companies that process shrimp of dubious origin and the Western companies whose consumers increasingly demand ethical sourcing. To do business overseas, Thai companies must qualify for membership in the Thai Frozen Foods Association, which adheres to globally recognized codes of conduct and carries out unscheduled inspections. Spokesman Arthon Piboonthanapatana asserts that anyone found guilty of labor abuses would be expelled. In more than three years of inspections, he said, this has never happened. <>

“If the shrimp is from TFFA members, I can 100 percent guarantee” that it is produced without labor exploitation, he said. But critics say that until the Thai shrimp industry requires larger factories to provide records of lower-level suppliers and follows through with random inspections, the shrimp it exports will remain tainted by human trafficking and labor abuses....The State Department has given Thailand a poor grade on human trafficking, citing it among countries that do not fully comply with the minimum standards for efforts to combat the problem. After the release of the department’s report in 2012, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said his country would improve its performance by strengthening cooperation among agencies tasked with fighting human trafficking. <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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