MAHACHAI, Thailand - Next time you visit Walmart and throw that packet of frozen shrimp in your shopping cart, pause a moment. The shrimp would most likely have travelled from Thailand, the world's top exporter of seafood since 2004, where reports of abuse of migrant workers have recently cast an unflattering shadow over the industry.
A June 6 briefing report by the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum highlighted child and worker rights violations at Narong Seafood, one of Thailand's leading seafood factories and one of Walmart's top suppliers.
Narong Seafood's principal shrimp processing facility is in Samut
Sakhon or modern Mahachai, a central Thai province that is home to over 6,000 seafood factories. This fishing and factory town at the mouth of the Tha Chin Klong river, which empties into the Gulf of Thailand, also hosts a huge percentage of the estimated 2.5 million migrant workers who underpin much of Thailand's burgeoning economy.
People from Myanmar comprise 82%of these migrants, while the rest come mostly from Laos (8.4%) and Cambodia (9.5%).
U Aung Kyaw was among those fleeing military rule, a crumbling economy and a lack of job opportunities in Myanmar (formally Burma). He came to Thailand looking for work in 1998 and soon found himself in Mahachai, working at a seafood factory.
It was here that he first experienced labor abuse and vowed not only to educate himself about his rights but also to advocate improved conditions for his fellow workers. One of the few workers willing to speak to the press, U Aung Kyaw heads the Burmese-led Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN).
He told IPS that smaller processing factories "force workers to work overtime for less pay. The legal minimum wage is 300 baht [US$10] per day and overtime is 56 baht per hour, but they usually pay 50-100 baht overall, and no overtime. Most workers are confined to the compound in these factories. Often, they are locked up and their documents confiscated to prevent them from escaping."
This is especially true in smaller factories, which handle the shrimp peeling for larger enterprises, where "shifts start at 4 am and finish late at night," according to U Aung Kyaw.
Thailand's seafood industry employs more than 650,000 people. Its exports totaled US$7.3 billion in 2011, with the United States, Japan and Europe importing nearly 70% of the country's seafood.
Allegations of worker abuse are not new to the sector. One indictment came as recently as May 29 this year, when a report by the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation entitled "Sold to the Sea" documented the case of 15 Burmese migrant workers who claimed that they were subjected to forced detention, bonded labor and physical abuse while being employed on Thai fishing ships.
Another report by the International Organization for Migration in 2011 titled "Trafficking of Fishermen in Thailand" documented cases of migrant fishermen who were forced to work for years without pay.
Meanwhile, labor rights activists who attempt to expose the dark side of this lucrative industry risk severe reprisals from a strong business community anxious to maintain positive international trade relations, and present an untarnished view of the sector to the outside world.
Especially in small factories, where individual owners can easily police the workforce, attempts to organize workers, or expose violations, have been met with police crackdowns or attacks by gangs.
"We were beaten up and experienced a lot of physical harassment," said U Aung Kyaw, who began collecting data and reporting abuses to the labor Rights Promotion Network in Mahachai several years ago, before starting MWRN in 2009.
Getting workers to speak out is tough because many are undocumented and fear reprisals. Activists recently pilloried the National Verification Program for charging "extortionist" prices for work permits, pushing many migrant into a kind of bonded servitude.
Twenty-seven-year-old Win Sein, hailing from the Tanintharyi Division in southeast Myanmar, was forced to pay his broker $223 when he arrived here seven years ago. To pay off the bill, he landed a job at a tuna processing factory in Mahachai.
"I'm currently working at Thai Union Frozen Foods in Mahachai," Win Sein told IPS. Here, a full range of discriminatory practices are on display, including Thai workers receiving two weeks of paid vacation while their Burmese counterparts get no official leave.
The fisheries sector is not the only one to have come under fire.
A 2012 report by the Finnish research NGO Finnwatch revealed how basic human rights were being grossly violated at a pineapple processing company and criticized a leading bottle manufacturer, claiming labor rights were compromised in an effort to maintain competitive prices. The problem, as Finnwatch research coordinator Henri Purje sees it, "is that the international chains that buy from Thai producers put fairly strict conditions on their suppliers, making it difficult for suppliers to pay the minimum wage".
Following the report, its co-author British migrant specialist Andy Hall faces a $10 million lawsuit for "criminal defamation".
For the last decade, Hall has exposed systematic abuses of migrant workers in Thailand and has worked closely with foreign consumers and diplomatic missions to develop a strategy of corporate social responsibility that might make life easier for migrant workers. He told IPS he has also been working closely with the Myanmar government, on whose shoulders the responsibility of protecting migrant workers falls.
Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi's recent visit and meeting with migrant workers in Mahachai has brought renewed hope that things will change.