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Thai Union ‘concerned but not worried’ about EU's looming carding decision

'Large firms have to lead the way, but it takes the whole industry to change the situation,' company exec says. 

As the largest shrimp producer in Thailand and one of the largest seafood companies in the world, Thai Union Group has aggressively stepped up in the implementation of measures to stop abusive practices in the Thai shrimp supply chain over the past two years -- but admits there's a lot more to be done.

The company stopped employing subcontractors for the manual processing of its shrimp, and directly employed 1,200 workers in the shrimp peeling lines to eliminate any risk of working right violations within its supply chain.

“Our policy is clear, zero tolerance to slave labor,” Preerasak Boonmechote, managing director of shrimp business unit at Thai Union, told IntraFish.

In the wake of the investigative reports published by The Guardian over slavery in the Thai seafood sector, Thai Union decided to lead the way and tackle the issue from its roots.

“We stopped that entirely and immediately, we have zero recruitment fees, we educate workers and tell them what their rights are,” Whitney Foard, group director of corporate communications at Thai Union, told IntraFish.

In 2015, the European Union issued a yellow card to Thailand, warning it that it should improve its working policies in order to continue trade with the bloc.

Although the initial period for a further decision on whether to issue a red card – which would stop exports into the EU -- was six months, the EU has postponed the deadline in two occasions, claiming Thailand is making efforts, but needs more time to eradicate the issues.

Thai Union said it considers it has great responsibility in making the change possible, but that it is a national problem, and needs to be tackled by the industry, the different employers and the government. "It is about changing the playfield for everyone," Boonmechote said, conceding that there is concern on what might happen in the future with the European Union.

“We are concerned but not worried,” Boonmechote told IntraFish

“There is a sense of concern, but there is also a sense of ‘OK, we are going in the right direction,’ and concern is where we need to stay."

The Thai government is making a great effort in applying the law, according to Thai Union, and visits by EU officials to fishing vessels "have gone well," according to Foard.

The company is focused in implementing the codes of conduct in the industry, which it has translated into 19 different languages as part of its ongoing efforts to eliminate barriers between workers and employers. 

“There is a minimum wage in Thailand, and it is indeed for every worker in the country, but in many cases this is not followed and workers are not aware of their rights,” Foard said.

In addition, Thai Union is providing classes and training with staff across its global operations, and working with NGOs in the implementation of labor standards in tuna vessels.

Over 90 percent of Thai Union’s shrimp workforce are migrants mainly from Cambodia and Myanmar.

“The difficulties in those countries, the underdevelopment, and the fact that there is no electricity, or that the countries have not attained the economic development that the workers need is what encourages people to come to work in Thailand,” Foard said.

“We are offering the opportunity to work here on the legal path.”

Among the common practices in shrimp factories accepted as normal by workers was to be paid by the piece, to pay for clothing and working material from their wages, to pay recruitment fees.

“We will continue to set the standards, we have taken steps to solve the problem, it’s gratifying working with NGOs and developing a code of conduct that is aimed to improve the sector,” Foard said.

Calling other parties to commit

The next step is to bring more companies and agencies into the mission.

“The goal is to eliminate forced labor in Thailand, absolutely,” Foard said.

Unfortunately, forced labor is a result of, quite simply, companies wanting to save money and reducing costs by taking advantage of people’s needs and vulnerability.

IntraFish asked if the cost increase that would result from eliminating slavery would impact the prices, and if the market would be ready to accept the increase.

“Of course all ships ride with a tide, and all these efforts come at a cost. That’s why it takes everybody, even the costumers, to make a change,” Foard said.

“But I think it’s really more about other markets, you can’t make a commitment in sustainability without the support of the entire community.”

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