By Nanchanok Wongsamuth
BANGKOK, Dec 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Efforts to protect Thai seafood workers from labour exploitation and modern slavery risk stalling as most international brands and retailers refuse to pay their suppliers more to comply with new anti-slavery policies, researchers said on Wednesday.
Thai seafood suppliers are struggling with rising production costs as they seek to improve labour conditions and meet new anti-slavery laws and regulations, with little or no financial help from big buyers, found a study by rights group Praxis Labs.
"The disconnect between what buyers purport to want and what they're willing to pay ... comes through sharply," said Sarah Mount of anti-slavery group The Freedom Fund, which co-funded the study based on the policies and actions of 28 companies.
"The costs of protecting workers from exploitation and forced labour should be distributed equitably across the value chain," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Over the last four years, Thailand has sought to clean up its multi-billion dollar fishing industry after investigations revealed widespread abuses and the European Union threatened to ban imports from the country.
New laws that tackle human trafficking and the treatment of migrant workers have been introduced to help the industry meet demand from buyers for more ethically-produced seafood.
The Thai government has in recent years overhauled the legal framework governing fishing, regulated recruitment agents, updated anti-trafficking laws to cover forced labour, and implemented more stringent monitoring of fisheries.
But the report said that complying with new laws and regulations has increased production costs, while most international buyers were refusing to increase their prices.
"Thai suppliers note haphazard financial support for social auditing but none for improving working conditions and report no increase in price," the researchers said in the report.
Panisuan Jamnarnwej, president emeritus of the Thai Frozen Foods Association, which represents over 100 seafood processing companies, said most buyers were only concerned about meeting the minimum ethical standards and were more focused on pricing.
"We have brought up this issue in the past - that (buyers) force us (to comply with certain standards) but they don't do anything to support us," he added.
The Thai Retailers Association, whose members include major international seafood buyers, and the Seafood Task Force, a group of businesses and charities that audits fishing vessels to stop human rights abuses, were unavailable for comment.
Workers in the Thai seafood industry may end up suffering further labour rights abuses - despite greater attention on the issue - if buyers do not pay higher prices, the report said.
"Until the costs associated with ethical sourcing are built into the product price, the current business model based on high volume at low price remains an inherent challenge to advancing human rights in seafood supply chains," the researchers said.
(Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth @nanchanokw; Editing by Michael Taylor and Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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