By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK, Jan 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 2,000 migrant workers at a major Thai seafood exporting company have called for bigger bonuses and better welfare benefits, a rare demand in a country that bars foreigners from forming trade unions, a rights group said.
Seven migrant workers from Myanmar submitted the request on behalf of more than 2,000 migrant workers to the government's labour protection and welfare office and to Unicord PCL, a leading tuna processor, said the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), which supported the effort.
"We believe this negotiation will be successful and lead to a trickle-down effect where other employees will be empowered and feel confident to organise and collectively bargain to make demands of their employers," said Andy Hall, co-founder of MWRN.
"They will realise the power they have as employees. Workers are powerful human beings."
Thailand has come under fire in recent years for worker exploitation and abuses against its migrant labourers - the vast majority from neighbouring Myanmar.
Many workers pay exorbitant agent fees to be smuggled into Thailand for dangerous and demeaning jobs, earning salaries below the minimum wage.
Thailand has pushed through policies in an effort to combat human trafficking and forced labour, particularly in its seafood industry.
The workers' demands to Unicord - a subsidiary of the Sea Value Group - include increased bonuses and benefits, such as benefits for workers with no absences over a two-week stretch.
Their demands aim to match the benefits provided to workers by other major seafood processors in Thailand, MWRN said.
Officials from Unicord could not immediately be reached by telephone for comment.
A 2015 report by a Finnish advocacy organisation found that Unicord had improved working conditions since the group began monitoring the company in 2012, but said its workers paid high recruitment fees.
Unicord reduced the recruitment fees last year after 200 workers protested outside the factory, Hall said, adding that their success emboldened them to submit the current demands.
Chanintr Chalisarapong, president of the Thai Tuna Industry Association and senior vice president of Sea Value, declined to comment on the negotiation.
"They just submitted it. It takes time to do this. They called for a lot of things. We can't comment right now. They (the company) are doing everything according to law now," Chanintr said by telephone.
Jason Judd, the International Labour Organization's programme manager focused on work conditions in the Thai seafood industry, said unions and civil society have repeatedly raised the issue of full organising and bargaining rights for workers in Thailand - regardless of their country of origin.
"Demands to improve wage protection, working conditions and working time by migrant workers are not uncommon, but we are hopeful that this new effort is one of several to advance dialogue between firms and workers in Thailand's large food and agriculture industry," Judd said by email.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)