By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Migrant workers in Thai shrimp peeling sheds rife with labour violations are being laid off with no compensation, putting them at risk of being "sold" to other employers as seafood companies scramble to clean up their supply chains, an activist said.
Thailand's large seafood industry - with annual exports to the European Union alone estimated at $641 million to $813 million - has come under a barrage of bad publicity, with NGO and media reports detailing slavery, human trafficking and other labour violations both on land and at sea.
The government and industry have introduced a slew of measures in response to the criticism.
The Thai Frozen Food Association (TFFA) - an industry group of major exporting companies - announced last month its members would bring shrimp peeling in-house "to reduce the risk of any illegal labour practices in the Thai shrimp supply chain".
TFFA President Poj Aramwattananont dismissed activists' concerns and the "crazy news causing problems" for the industry.
Poj said TFFA had worked out agreements with workers at about 50 of the peeling sheds used by its members, but still had to resolve issues with eight others.
"We have been working on resolving this problem since the beginning of this year. The workers at the sheds have been taken care of, given new jobs and compensated," Poj said by telephone on Thursday.
Seafood giant Thai Union Group announced this week it was hiring 1,200 workers previously employed at external shrimp peeling sheds to work in its factories.
But activists say many migrants in the peeling sheds are being laid off with no warning or compensation, while many are still in debt to brokers and employers.
"It's unacceptable the way they've handled it. We heard from the workers that they got absolutely no compensation. They just got moved to another workplace, and this is very risky behaviour," activist Andy Hall told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.
By law, employers must compensate laid-off workers who have been employed four months or longer with one month's salary, or up to a year's wages for those employed six years or longer.
"These workers are in debt bondage, and if the shrimp shed closes, and they're indebted to brokers and employers, then they can be sold on," Hall said.
The U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand in 2014 to its "tier 3" of worst offenders for human trafficking, while the European Union gave it a "yellow card" in April for failing to clamp down on problems in its fishing industry.
An EU delegation is visiting Thailand this week to assess the country's progress in battling illegal and unregulated fishing.
The London-based Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) welcomed the TFFA's move to stop using shrimp peeling sheds, but urged companies to offer in-house employment to workers in the subcontracted sheds.
"This shortening of the supply chain should provide a welcome improvement in transparency and should also end the culture of very poor working conditions when subcontracted out," ETI's food and farming expert Nick Kightley said in a statement.
Beyond peeling sheds, Thailand has problems on shrimp farms and hatcheries, which are often located in remote areas, beyond the reach of civil society organisations, Hall said.
At a recent meeting with shrimp farm owners, he said he heard many shrimp farmers defending the confiscation of passports "to prevent them from getting their passports wet"; bans on workers leaving farms to stop theft; and long working hours to ensure shrimp are fed at the right times.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)