SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand - Facing international pressure for failing to stop human trafficking in its seafood sector, Thailand promised almost a year ago to compensate victims of slavery, and industry leaders vowed to bring all shrimp processing in-house.
That hasn’t always happened. Instead, some formerly enslaved shrimp peelers have been deported. And some shrimp peeling sheds are being inspected and authorized to keep operating.
Tin Nyo Win, who escaped slavery and alerted police to abuses, was deported to Myanmar this month, along with his pregnant wife and a half-dozen others, after being held almost a year in a Thai government shelter. Authorities said although the couple were victims of modern-day slavery, they had illegally entered Thailand to begin with.
“They don’t treat us like humans. They treat us like dogs,” Tin Nyo Win said hours before Thai authorities took them away. “They just try to bully those of us who are victims already.”
Nattamon Punbhochar at the Thai foreign ministry said the couple never requested compensation and were deported in accordance with a memorandum of understanding Thailand has with Myanmar.
“They don’t want any wages from their employer,” he said. “They just want to return to their home.”
Win denies this. He said he’s broke, tried to get compensated and would have actually appreciated a decent job processing seafood in Thailand.
The Associated Press also found that while some Thai companies that export shrimp to the U.S. have given formerly entrapped workers better jobs in-house, others still use middlemen who employ laborers in remote, guarded warehouses. That’s despite industry vows to end outside shrimp processing by the end of last year after human trafficking was exposed in the sheds.
Shed owners frequently break environmental, labor or safety laws. Seventy-five percent of the 109 inspected so far this year were cited for violations, and 24 were ordered to close.
Human-rights and media reports documenting abuse in Thailand’s $7 billion annual seafood export industry have brought international pressure. Last year, the AP reported on fishermen locked in a cage on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina and traced their catch to Thailand, then on to the U.S., leading to more than 2,000 slaves being freed.
AP also focused on slavery inside the Gig Peeling shed outside Bangkok in Samut Sakhon, where Tin Nyo Win, 22, and his wife were locked inside and forced to work 16 hours a day, ripping guts, heads and tails off shrimp that entered supply chains of most major U.S. supermarkets and companies including Red Lobster, Whole Foods (WFM) and Walmart (WMT).
Win was a whistleblower -- he ran away and told police, who raided the factory and rescued more than 100 people.
In response, the Thai government said victims and witnesses of human trafficking could stay and work in Thailand for up to one year while their cases were investigated. This year the U.S. State Department commended Thailand for reforms and took the country off a global human trafficking blacklist.
Those Thai reforms -- on paper -- include paying whistleblowers like Win as much as $2,800, and providing victims compensation, education, employment and other assistance. Empty promises, said Win, who said he and his wife weren’t even given food sometimes.
Col. Prasert Siriphanapitat, Samut Sakhon deputy police commander, said five people including a shed owner have been charged in Tin Nyo Win’s case. All are out on bail.
Last year, facing a boycott over abuses, major seafood groups and certifiers decided to protect workers by moving all labor in-house, banning outsourcing of shrimp pre-processing. Yet dozens of pre-processing sheds continue to operate, doing work for at least some of those exporters.
The shrimp-peeling sheds are hidden in plain sight. Some are large factories, others nothing more than a large garage. Labor advocates say workers can become mired in debt by paying for the jobs in the first place and then being charged room and board. There’s little oversight to ensure they’re not being forced to work.
The AP recently visited a handful of Samut Sakhon shrimp sheds -- some now rebranded as shrimp factories -- buzzing with workers hand-peeling truckloads of shrimp on residential streets or behind walls.
“We prepare many tons of shrimp here every day,” said Boonchai Seafood director Taweesak Suralertrungson. “We’re following rules 100 percent.”
Documents at Boonchai show it processes shrimp for May Ao Food Co., one of Thailand’s leading exporters to the U.S. May Ao touts major U.S. importers as customers, including Aqua Star and H&N Foods International. May Ao’s own “May Brand” shrimp has been sold at Kroger (KR) and other supermarkets.
Boonchai on this day had 107 shrimp peelers who were gutting, deveining and tearing heads off shrimp in icy buckets. Taweesak said each is paid the daily minimum wage of 300 baht ($8.50). Standing in a cooled warehouse, workers in gloves, aprons and boots worked at stainless-steel tables.
With new government oversight, Boonchai’s workers this year got insurance, housing support and hourly pay, Taweesak said. But a colleague complained that once workers get legitimate papers, most leave.
“They don’t want to work in this wet and smelly place if they don’t have to,” said assistant Jamras Goyari.
While Boonchai’s operations passed a government inspection, the industry had vowed to eliminate middlemen.
Shrimp peeled by Boonchai, which enters the supply chains of seafood exported by May Ao carries the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices certification. It says “peeling and heading of shrimp must occur in facilities owned by and completely controlled by” the processing plants. May Ao is also a member of the Thai Frozen Foods Association, which promised last year “to eradicate third-party pre-processing.”
Officials at May Ao and TFFA initially insisted that all shrimp peeling is in-house. When pressed, TFFA President Poj Aramwattananont said May Ao’s factory is too small to handle all the labor. He said there’s nothing illegal about pre-processing in independent warehouses and that the media has unfairly singled out his industry.
“We are not 100 percent clean. You will always find some problems, but those are rare,” he said.
Global Aquaculture Alliance President George Chamberlain said his organization is gravely concerned and asked for more details for further investigation.
“Clearly, this is a difficult long-term issue, but we take it very seriously, and we are working hard on it,” he said.
At May Ao, an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said while Boonchai isn’t “in-house,” they are allowed to do business with each other because they’re part of the same association. Boonchai officials said they weren’t yet TFFA members but were taking steps to join.
Clearly, some Thai seafood exporters have improved working conditions. One of the biggest, Thai Union, opened a large, clean peeling warehouse at its packing and exporting facility. The 1,200 workers get subsidized meals and opportunities for bonuses.
“I have more rights. I like it,” said Thet Paing Oo, 23, a migrant from Myanmar having lunch in Thai Union’s cafeteria. He said he spent six years working 15-hour shifts at shrimp sheds without a day off.
Now his salary has increased, and he gets one day off a week.
Yu Wa, 35, also from Myanmar, teared up at the memory of her previous shed, where she was locked inside and paid by the kilogram no matter how long the work took. Now she gets a daily wage.
“Workers don’t need to buy our gloves and uniforms. We have a shuttle pick us up for work,” she said. “I am treated well, and the boss is good. It’s much better.”
Thai Union was among the companies found last year to be getting their shrimp peeled at Gig Peeling shed, where Tin Nyo Win and others were enslaved.
Thai Union spokeswoman Whitney Small said Thai Union offered everyone at Gig positions, accommodations, food and money. She said none of those workers ended up at Thai Union. She didn’t know why.
Tin Nyo Win, reached by phone back in Myanmar, said life is difficult. He has no money, and his wife is about to give birth.
When AP tried to call him back, a woman answered. She said he had pawned the cellphone to her. She didn’t know where he had gone.