A protracted struggle for freedom at a seafood factory in southern Thailand has all but ended, with hundreds of migrant workers from Cambodia finally regaining their passports yesterday.
For months, migrant workers at the Phatthana Seafood factory, part of a global supplier with clients including the retail giant Walmart, have complained of being forced to work in exploitative conditions.
But after strikes, advocacy campaigns by rights groups and growing media attention, Phatthana Seafood yesterday agreed to return the passports of about 500 Cambodians.
“The passports were given back to all the workers together. They gave us to hold for rights, freedom. They gave the passports to us to keep forever,” Cambodian worker representative Sor Sorng said.
“Having our passports in our hand gives us safety. If we want to go anywhere or go home, it is easy. Now that we have rights and freedom, we are happy.”
Most of the remaining employees were still too poor to return home and would continue working at the factory, Sor Sorng said, adding that they would have to go to the police station once every three months to update their visas.
About 300 of the 800 Cambodian workers have already returned home, but were forced to pay a fee ranging from 1,000 baht (US$32) to 1,500 baht to do so, outraging rights groups that have called this debt bondage – a form of human trafficking.
Those who remain will receive a daily salary of 266 baht after Phatthana Seafood agreed to some of their wage demands.
Cambodia’s ambassador to Thailand, You Ay, said this had brought the matter to a close, but maintained Phatthana Seafood had taken the passports only to protect the workers.
“They were afraid the workers do not care enough about the passport, and it can be stolen,” she said.
The workers were sent to the factory by Cambodian labour recruitment firm CDM Trading Manpower and have said they were cheated in their contracts about pay conditions.
CDM Trading Manpower could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program and the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, welcomed the news, but alleged that about 100 workers recruited directly by Phatthana Seafood from Cambodia without travel documents remained trapped at the factory.
“Those workers at Phatthana are working in slavery-like conditions,” he said.
The fate of workers from Myanmar at the factory remains unclear, though an attaché from the country’s Ministry of Labour has arrived in Thailand and was scheduled to give a press conference late yesterday.
Walmart has said it is investigating the case.
Phatthana Seafood’s parent company, PTN, has not responded to inquiries from the Post.