Chicken farm slavery complaint highlights labour challenges for Thailand
As the youngest son, Nan Win hoped to make some money for his poor family, who scraped by growing rice and beans in Myanmar’s Bago region.
So three years ago he migrated from his rural home to work at a commercial chicken farm north of Bangkok.
The 28–year–old was prepared to work hard but had no idea how tough his life would be in Thailand.
“I think it is like modern slavery, because we had to work so hard and got so little money,” Nan Win told the ABC at a shelter outside of Bangkok.
“When they delivered the baby chicks, we worked for 19 hours a day for 40 days, until the fully grown chickens went to the factory,” he said.
The illegal migrant workers were paid just $260 a month, well below Thailand’s minimum wage of $11.50 a day.
During peak times, they slept in a room next to 28,000 chickens, constantly monitoring the power supply to industrial fans that kept the chickens from overheating.
“I couldn’t sleep because of the noise of the generator for the fans and the bugs from the chickens were so itchy,” said 31–year–old Mae Lay, who spent two years at the farm in Lopburi province.
The 14 Myanmar workers felt trapped.
Their travel documents had been confiscated by the farm owner and they owed money to brokers who arranged the jobs.
There are 1.4 million registered migrant workers in Thailand — mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia — but it is estimated as many as 4 million people work outside the official system.
They face abuse from corrupt officials and unethical employers.
Facebook to the rescue
This tale of modern-day slavery has a modern-day saviour.
About a month ago, Nan Win spotted something on social media from a local organisation called the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), and he made contact.
“Facebook was like our rescuer,” he said.
The workers’ posts about their conditions quickly attracted the attention of local police, but not in the way they had hoped.
“The farm owner made us sign a document at the police station saying we wouldn’t use Facebook,” said Nan Win.
Another woman was investigated for theft after taking her own time code to prove the hours she worked.
Eventually all 14 workers left the farm and are now being cared for by the MWRN while they make a claim for around $11,000 each in unpaid wages.
The farm owner has not commented on the allegations but the buyer — poultry giant Betagro — promptly suspended its contract and called all its suppliers in to discuss labour issues.
Betagro is a major supplier for European markets but does not send chicken products to Australia, which rarely imports poultry.
“In regard to the credible reports that MWRN received about the migrant worker exploitation and abuse, including allegations of forced labour … Betagro has investigated and found that the issue was occurred (sic) at our contracted farm named Thammakaset Farm 2,” said a company statement.
“We insist to fairly treat to all stakeholders and workers in every nationality,” said the statement, signed by Suthep Tirapipattanakul, Executive Vice President Operational Development at Betagro.
Thailand up, Myanmar down
That swift action is the sort of thing that has got Thailand lifted off the bottom rung of the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) ranking — an annual index released by the United States.
The 2016 report, released on Thursday evening, put Thailand on the tier two watch list.
It was an acknowledgment of reforms that have focused on Thailand’s huge and sometimes brutal seafood industry.
“[There’s] a new port–in, port–out procedure that Thailand put in place where they will talk to crewmen before they go out to sea and once they return,” said Susan Coppedge, the US State Department’s Ambassador–at–Large for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
“The goal is to identify any workers who may be victims of trafficking.”
Thailand spent two years on tier three — a category for countries the US thinks are not doing enough to tackle trafficking and forced labour.
Things sank to a new low last year with the shocking discovery of trafficking camps and mass graves on the Thai-Malaysian border.
“It is truly horrible … [we’re] encouraging and imploring them to investigate these and hold any officials that were involved in or benefiting from the trafficking or forced labour of individuals accountable,” said Ms Coppedge.
While Thailand moved up the rankings, Myanmar has been dropped down to tier three, due to a small number of child soldiers, the lack of criminal processions and ongoing reports of forced labour.
But Ambassador Coppedge says the report covers the period of the previous government, before Aung San Suu Kyi’s party took over Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand last week and has made sure the rights of Myanmar workers like those on the chicken farm and on the seas are a top priority for her new government.
Back at the migrant workers office, Nan Win tells the ABC he just wants to get what he’s owed and leave Thailand.
But there is one thing he is — surprisingly — not sick of yet.
“I still eat chickens,” he smiles.
“They’re not like the natural ones at home, they’re raised artificially, but they’re really tasty.”
Source: ABC Net. Date: 1 July 2016