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Employees work on a production line at a food-processing plant in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province late last year.
Employees work on a production line at a food-processing plant in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province late last year. Bloomberg

Migrants abused in Thai poultry industry

Cambodian migrants working in Thailand to process chicken for European consumers are forced into debt bondage and subjected to a range of rights violations, according to a new report.

Trapped in the Kitchen of the World, which was released on Wednesday by European NGOs Swedwatch and Finnwatch, details the widespread abuse that feeds into Thailand’s lucrative poultry-meat industry, for which Europe is the biggest export market.

“Migrant workers hired by companies exporting to the EU and other markets are often exposed to repeated violations of human and labour rights by employers and subcontractors as well as corrupt officials,” the report says, noting that the sector follows the same pattern of migrant abuse that pervades many of Thailand’s labour-intensive industries.

In 2014 alone, about 270,000 tonnes of poultry meat was shipped from Thailand to the EU. Swedwatch says the industry has become “a main ingredient of Thailand’s objective of becoming ‘the kitchen of the world’”.

The report, which is based on interviews with 98 migrant workers including 20 Cambodians, highlights debt bondage as a major issue.

“Interviewees at all factories stated that they were indebted to their employers or recruiters prior to even entering Thailand,” it says.

“Various fees related to their recruitment lead the migrant workers to different levels of debt bondage and are in breach of the ILO [International Labour Organization] Convention 181,” which prohibits private employment agencies from charging any fees or costs to workers.

Other issues highlighted in the report include abusive employers, sub-standard working conditions and the withholding of personal documents.

Interviews with Cambodian workers at a factory operated by CP Foods Public Company Limited revealed that contracts were retained by the employer; supervisors were “scolding” and exerted “too much pressure”; toilet breaks were monitored; and migrants lacked representation.

None of the Cambodian workers interviewed could produce health insurance, despite seeing their salaries deducted for it, and alleged intimidation and poor translation by company translators.

CP Foods responded to the report’s authors about the allegations, arguing that it complies with Thai labour laws but would seek to address issues that do exist.

The company said it had introduced a new foreign labour hiring policy in April to ensure that “all foreign workers are directly employed by the company, and free from recruitment-related debt”.

Officials at the Ministry of Labour could not be reached yesterday, while the EU delegation in Cambodia did not respond to requests for comment.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said foreign importers of Thai products needed to “wake up and recognise that they have to demand fundamental changes in the way the Thai government deals with migrant workers”.

“What is on display is impunity, pure and simple, to treat Cambodian workers as less than human, to deprive them of rights and to exploit their already-meager wages even further.”

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