LONDON, Nov 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Migrants processing Thai chicken for its biggest export market, Europe, face widespread abuse by their employers, partly because foreign auditors have focused on food safety rather than workers' conditions, researchers said on Wednesday.
Chicken is set to become the world's most consumed meat, within the next five years, overtaking pork.
Its increasing popularity is a boon to major poultry suppliers like Thailand, which shipped about 270,000 tonnes of processed chicken to the European Union in 2014, according to Swedwatch, which monitors the impact of Swedish companies on the environment and human rights.
In a joint study with Finnwatch, the group found that factory workers from Thailand's poorer neighbours Cambodia and Myanmar are being exploited by brokers and employers who withhold their passports and charge excessive recruitment fees.
"Those together put the migrant workers in a very vulnerable situation," said Swedwatch researcher Kalle Bergbom, who helped compile the report based on interviews with 98 migrant workers.
"Lots of these testimonies are indicators of trafficking for labour exploitation according to the ILO (International Labour Organization)," Bergbom told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Many workers reported being verbally and physically abused by supervisors who hide any malpractice during official audits, Bergbom added.
"(Supervisors) would slow down the pace of work, they would be a lot softer in their attitudes towards the worker. It shows that they're trying to cover up any possible problems during official audits," Bergbom said.
"That of course makes it harder for foreign companies ... to get a true picture of the conditions."
Similar abuses in Thailand's seafood sector led the U.S. State Department to downgrade the country in 2014 in the Trafficking in Persons report, an annual ranking of nations by their efforts to combat human trafficking.
The European Union threatened earlier this year to ban Thai seafood imports if Thailand failed to adopt adequate measures against slave labour and illegal fishing.
Bergbom said Swedish importers and wholesalers had focused more on ensuring food safety requirements were met, than on checking workers' conditions.
Swedwatch also said the Swedish authorities, in their procurement of food, had failed to recognise the risk of human rights abuses in the food sector.
"This means that children and adults in Sweden's public institutions such as schools, retirement homes and hospitals may be served poultry products produced by exploited migrants," it said.
(Additional reporting by Joseph D'Urso, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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