A large North American union has called on US retail giant Walmart to take immediate action against one of its seafood suppliers in Thailand accused of holding Cambodian workers in debt bondage while barely providing them with enough money to eat.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has waded into the ugly dispute between the Phatthana Seafood factory, its migrant work force and the Cambodian recruitment firm that sent many of them there.
Since a strike broke out at the firm’s Songkhla province factory just over a week ago, the situation has deteriorated to the point where some workers are reportedly so poor, they cannot afford food, while rights groups allege the company is engaged in direct human trafficking.
Cambodian worker representative Sor Sorng said yesterday an NGO donated food to some 300 migrant workers who could no longer afford to eat.
“They need food so much because [they have received] no money from work,” he said, adding that on top of the deceptive pay conditions they had been tricked into, the workers had earned nothing over the extended Thai New Year holiday.
He said the 300 workers would still not be able to afford the 1,000 baht (US$32.50) Phatthana was demanding to allow them to return home and offered words of warning to Cambodians he believed the company planned to source to replace those who left.
“I think that they do not know about working abroad: They will come, but when they arrive, they will know how hard it is,” he said.
In a letter sent to Walmart’s ethical sourcing department yesterday, the UFCW demanded they take action against Phatthana Seafood, which it alleges illegally confiscated the passports of as many as 2,000 migrant workers.
“As you know, the confiscation of documents is a violation of Thai law as well as Walmart’s Standards for Suppliers,” the letter read.
“Receiving half the hours and pay promised to them and without promised lodging and transportation, many of the workers face malnutrition because they are unable to even afford enough to eat.”
Workers have reported that Phatthana Seafood agreed to half of their demands made during strikes last week, agreeing to pay a 20 baht daily salary raise to 266 baht, but refusing a 20 baht daily food allowance.
The firm had also agreed to 50 baht per hour overtime pay.
Phatthana has not responded to repeated inquiries from the Post, while Walmart has affirmed it launched an investigation and does not tolerate human trafficking but has not provided any detailed information of what action it is taking.
Cambodian Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong could not be reached yesterday and the embassy in Thailand has not replied to inquiries.
The Post first raised allegations that Cambodian workers at the company’s factory in Songkhla province were being charged fees undisclosed in their contract with labour supply firm CDM Trading Manpower for living expenses and passports in January.
After some 800 Cambodian migrant workers, joined by counterparts from Myanmar, launched strike action just over a week ago, Phatthana Seafood and Cambodia’s CDM Trading Manpower offered a resolution.
The workers, who had protested the removal of benefits following a raise in the Thai minimum wage, were reportedly rejected and asked to pay 1,200 baht to be released from the factory, a situation rights groups have alleged is a form of human trafficking – debt bondage.
Andy Hall, foreign expert at Mahidol University’s Institute of Population and Social Research in Bangkok, said the Myanmar government had begun investigating the treatment of its citizens at the factory, but the Cambodian government appeared to have done nothing.
He said workers had become so desperate they had called a Thai anti-trafficking hotline while five from Myanmar had fled because of a lack of food.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, has also alleged that Phatthana Seafood travelled directly to Cambodia to recruit about 100 workers without proper travel documents.
“Those people, around 100 people, are in debt bondage and want to come back to Cambodia,” he said on Monday. “They don’t have a passport, they don’t have a travel document, so the working permit is for Songkhla only, and if they want to come back to Cambodia, it’s really hard, because they don’t have travel documents.”
A representative of CDM Trading Manpower said they were on holiday and declined to comment.