PHOTO CREDIT: ABC NEWS / LIAM COCHRANE
Late June, an investigation into a poultry farm in Thailand owned by the company giant Betagro, one of the largest chicken exporters in the world, discovered 14 Myanmar migrants were being held for labour exploitation. Betagro supplies largescale poultry for pet food and ready-made meals throughout both Asia and the western world. Forced labour is an issue that is still all too common in the world today, and has a high rate in Thailand particularly in its agricultural and seafood sectors. Farms and rural factories are an opportune place for trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation, due to the isolated nature and the lack of scrutiny and public eye. The workers were discovered after one was arrested for stealing property from her employer. The item she stole was simply her timecard in a desperate attempt to prove the extreme hours they were being forced to work. Through this, the Myanmar Workers Rights Network (MWRN) were able to become involved to rescue these workers and advocate on their behalf for compensation for unpaid wages.
These cases can often seem quite confusing so what happened to them?
These individuals came to Thailand in hopes of gaining employment to be able to support their families back at home in Myanmar
Arriving, they each had a similar story of finding an agent who promised to find them a job on a farm in return for a debt they would pay back through the money they would earn
Upon arrival to the Betagro farm, they had their passports and documents confiscated, which would prevent them from being able to leave
They were forced to work from 7am until 5pm and then again from 7pm until 5am, an extreme total of 20 hours a day
They were paid at the equivalent of $260 AUD a month which equates to only $2.30 AUD a day, which is extremely low and in breach of Thai law of the minimum of $11.50 AUD per day.
They were unable to leave the farm unless in the strict presence of a supervisor
In the short time they were allowed to sleep, it was crammed together in a small room in the pens next to 28,000 chickens
These workers had each been working at the farm for various periods of time, with the longest claim being 5 years
They were discovered after a worker was arrested for stealing a timecard proving the hours they were forced to work which allowed the MWRN to intervene
In a further step of the legal battle these individuals have found themselves in, this worker who was arrested has again been arrested in relation to the timecard, this time charged for ‘joining others to steal from an employer’, despite the fact it is evident they have been the victims of a crime themselves.
The Thai government have since released a statement denying that any form of modern labour slavery had occurred.
While this is a horrible situation on its own, the main issue here is that after paying the bail amount for the arrested worker, the company Betagro have since cut all ties with the farm and have refused to claim any responsibility or get involved in the ongoing case. However, the complication here is that Thai law determines that the direct employer must be the one to pay compensation, which in this case is the farm owner not Betagro itself allowing them to avoid responsibility, despite the fact they have in a way acknowledged they hold responsibility by paying the bail for the arrested employee. Realistically, the farm owner is highly unlikely and probably incapable to be able to produce any money. These workers simply just want to go home and see their families who they haven’t been able to see in so long. They don’t want to be involved in a lengthy legal battle, they just want to be able to receive money owed for unpaid wages so they can take back some income to their families. The catch here, is that if they leave the country before the legal case is settled, they forfeit all rights to any compensation and will receive absolutely nothing.
Since the beginning of this case, there have been further reports suggesting there are multiple more farms with similar conditions owned by the same farmer as in this case, prompting an urgent need for investigation and auditing of supply chains. While potentially the company Betagro believed they were doing the right thing by cutting ties with this farm that was exploiting the labour of the workers, they have left these 14 individuals unsupported and uncompensated and they have taken no responsibility. Out of this horrible situation, they have the opportunity to set a precedent for other large companies to admit and rectify failures in their supply chains, and introduce audits or procedures to monitor all stages of production to identify other trafficking cases and prevent them from occurring again.
A QUICK RECAP OF UNFOLDING EVENTS...
24th June – Worker, Ye Ye arrested and charged with theft and her 75,000 Baht bail was paid by a representative from Betagro
26th June – MWRN interviewed all 14 workers and uncovered information about human rights violations and the conditions they were subjected to in the farm
28th June – The farm officially accused of human rights abuse and labour exploitation for the 14 workers
29th June – Betagro drops all association with the farm in question
7th July – MWRN submit a petition regarding human rights violations of the 14 workers to the chairman of the Subcommitte of the National Human Rights Commission
13th July – Six other farms discovered owned by the same person with similar conditions
29th July – Ye Ye charged a second time with additional charges of ‘participating with another to commit theft’ and ‘theft during night time’. Also fellow worker, Su Yang summoned to also be charged with the same charges
1st August – Local police questioned 14 workers at local police station using trafficking assessment form
3rd August – Thai government issued a blanket denial statement regarding any suggestion of ‘modern day slavery’ in the Betagro case
So what can we do?
While we are not in Thailand or face to face with these survivors, we are not powerless. We can join all of our voices together to implore Betagro to taken action.
You can call upon Betagro for two main things:
1. To take responsibility and ensure that all 14 workers from Thammakaset Farm 2 are paid the compensation they are due as per Thai laws;
2. Investigate working conditions in all Betagro poultry supply chains to resolve further uncovered cases of forced labour and exploitation.
This is an opportunity for a large company to lead the way for others to introduce audits of each step of their production, especially isolated farms or factories in an effort to prevent forced labour. It is an absolute tragedy what has happened to these 14 individuals, but we can choose to view it as an opportunity to highlight and address the issue and encourage companies to come alongside with anti-trafficking organisations to make changes for ethical supply chains in major companies.