Migrant Workers in Thailand Win Justice for Abuse at Work

Migrant Workers in Thailand Win Justice for Abuse at Work

Worker rights advocates are hailing a recent court decision in Thailand that dismissed criminal defamation charges against 14 migrant workers from Myanmar who faced jail time after reporting abusive working conditions on a poultry farm.

Fourteen workers who left the farm in 2016 described forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, confiscation of passports and restrictions on freedom of movement in a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.

In retaliation against the workers for submitting the complaint, the Thammakaset Co. Ltd. filed a criminal defamation complaint against the 14 workers, alleging they falsified claims to damage its business interests.

The case put a spotlight on abuse in the supply chain, says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan. The ruling “strikes a blow against the criminalization of promoting labor rights,” and is a landmark for migrant worker rights and freedom of expression.

“Companies filing criminal defamation complaints against workers who seek justice on the job is an all-too common practice, one often used as justification for dismissal. This decision is in line with international legal standards supporting free speech, freedom of assembly and other activities key to an open civil society.”

Workers Increasingly Migrate for Jobs

One of the migrant workers says he worked 22-hour shifts for more than four years at the Thammakaset 2 Poultry farm, which supplies one of Thailand’s largest chicken export companies. Myint told the Guardian that each day, he would kill up to 500 birds for food processing. At night, he and his co-workers say they slept on the floor in a room with up to 28,000 chickens, swatting away insects. If a bird got sick, they were to blame.

Of the 232 million migrants around the world, 150 million are migrant workers. Millions of migrant workers like Myint and his co-workers are unable to find family-supporting jobs in their origin countries. With labor migration increasing as men and women seek to support their families, the case highlights the rights of migrant workers seeking justice for workplace abuse.

A team of United Nations human rights experts this year called on Thailand to “end recurring attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, union leaders and community representatives who speak out against business-related human rights abuse.”

Referring to the Thammakaset case, they said “business enterprises have a responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts; therefore it is a worrying trend to see businesses file cases against human rights defenders for engaging in legitimate activities.”

Thammakaset also filed a criminal complaint against two of the 14 workers and a Migrant Worker Rights Network coordinator for the alleged “theft” of time cards, taken by the workers to show labor officials evidence of their claims about a 20-hour working day. MWRN, a Solidarity Center partner, is a membership-based organization for migrant workers from Myanmar working in Thailand.

Solidarity Center Supporting Trafficked Cambodians

Solidarity Center Supporting Trafficked Cambodians

Rural Cambodian villagers who say they were trafficked for forced labor in the shrimp processing industry in Thailand are challenging a ruling by a California federal district court that dismissed their case against the Thai and U.S. companies that benefited from their labor.

A coalition of human rights groups, led by the Solidarity Center, filed an amicus brief on June 1 in support of seven workers as their case goes to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The workers had brought their suit based in part under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which in 2008 was amended to extend civil liability to those who “knowingly benefit” from the trafficking of persons in their supply chains.

The December ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California interpreted the TVPRA in a way that essentially ignored the “knowingly benefit” standard and instead required evidence that the U.S.-based companies actually participated in a venture to traffic the Cambodian workers into Thailand, according to Solidarity Center Legal Director Jeff Vogt.

The supporting brief argues, in part, that the companies knew or should have known of the widespread use of trafficked labor in the seafood sector in Thailand. Since 2008, numerous reports have exposed the trafficking of workers into Thailand to work in the shrimp industry. It would have been virtually impossible for enterprises involved in the shrimp industry not to have known of the extremely high risk of trafficking.

In 2016 alone, 16 million people were victims of forced labor by private enterprises, according to International Labor Organization estimates. This illegal activity generates $51 billion in profits.

Following the December court ruling (Keo Ratha, et al. v. Phatthana Seafoods Co. Ltd., et al.), Keo Ratha, one of the seven men filing the suit, told Voice of America Khmer that he deeply regretted the district court’s decision.

“I’m disappointed because we thought that the U.S. court would find justice for us,” he said. “But when the court dismissed our complaint I was speechless. This is their law.”

Joining the Solidarity Center in its brief are the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Earthrights International, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group,  the International Labor Rights Forum and the Worker Rights Consortium.

2,000 Thailand Fast Food Workers Win First Contract

2,000 Thailand Fast Food Workers Win First Contract

Thailand, KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Solidarity Center

Apantree Charoensak, union president, was fired from her position at Yum! Thailand during contract negotiations. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Some 2,000 fast food workers and supervisors at one of Thailand’s largest KFC franchises recently won the first-ever collective bargaining agreement in the kingdom’s fast food industry, a pact that includes an early retirement program, 23 meals provided by the company per year and motorcycle maintenance funds for delivery workers.

The contact also includes the right to union representation in any dispute or grievance, and paid union leave.

The workers are among 2,400 members represented by the Cuisine and Service Workers’ Union, an IUF affiliate.

During negotiations last month, union President Apantree Charoensak, who has been leading the struggle for fast food workers across Thailand for nearly a decade, was fired from her position at Yum! Thailand, which operates some of the KFC franchises. (The new contract covers KFC franchises run by Restaurant Development Ltd., which operates 130 of the 586 KFC restaurants in Thailand.)

Women representing 50 organizations in Thailand issued a statement of solidarity with Charoensak and submitted it to management of Yum! Thailand in Bangkok. Charoensak, along with two co-workers, had been previously dismissed in 2011 following her efforts to organize a union and negotiate a contract with Yum! Thailand. She and her co-workers were reinstated after filing a complaint with the country’s Labor Relations Commission describing their dismissal as retaliation for union activity, an action prohibited under Thai law.

Charoensak, a manager at the corporation where she supervised up to a dozen restaurants, says she began union organizing to rectify what she saw as a large pay disparity between front-line workers and managers. Ultimately two unions formed, one covering front-line employees and one for supervisors. Over the years, she says management also tried to end her union activism by offering her large sums of money, which she refused, and isolated her at work, giving her little to do—time she filled by completing a master’s degree in political science and addressing union members’ concerns.

Thai Unions Coordinate, Collaborate for Success

Thai Unions Coordinate, Collaborate for Success

After working several years at an auto parts factory outside Bangkok, Prasit Prasopsuk compared conditions at his workplace with those of a friend employed at a similar plant—and realized his wages were lower and working conditions worse because there was no union representation.

Prasit Prasopsuk, treasurer of the 40,000-member Thai auto workers’ union, says there are many obstacles to organizing workers in Thailand. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The conversation spurred Prasopsuk to action, and he went on to organize a union in 2007, starting with 200 co-workers whose numbers grew to 1,700 in two years. Now, a 16-year veteran at the factory, where he makes ball bearings, Prasopsuk is treasurer of the 40,000-member Federation of Thailand Auto Workers Union (TAW) and vice president of Thailand Autoparts and Metal Workers Union (TAM), a TAW affiliate. Both unions are part of the Thai Confederation of Electronic, Electrical Appliances, Auto and Metal Workers (TEAM).

Despite his success, Prasopsuk says it is “very difficult” to get workers to form unions in Thailand. Employers dismiss workers they suspect of organizing a union—even though it is against the law—and wield a gamut of other tactics, including forming company unions and taking legal action against workers and unions for such issues as derogatory statements on social media.

Some 525,000 workers are employed in auto parts factories in Thailand, which is the world’s twelfth-largest automobile producer in the world. The country also is a leading producer of hard disk drives, making it a major exporter of high-value goods. Most industrial factories are owned by multinational corporations, and steep competition from emerging low-wage Asian countries like Vietnam drives factory owners’ relentless efforts to cut costs by targeting workers. Some companies are moving factories to other Southeast Asian countries with lower wages. Meanwhile, the government’s stepped up efforts to privatize key sectors is resulting in layoffs and wage cuts.

Thailand, factory unions, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Unions representing manufacturing workers and public employees in Thailand have joined forces in a tightly-knit network to pool resources and strategies to best assist workers.  Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

To meet these challenges, unions representing manufacturing workers and public employees have joined forces in a tightly knit network in which they regularly meet to discuss organizing campaigns and legal battles and plan for coordinated actions around issues like raising the minimum wage. Through the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee (TLSC) and Organizing Labor Union Committee, unions also engage in long-term planning around issues such as boosting organizing capacity, expanding outreach to both formal and informal economy workers, and advancing a democratic labor movement in the face of company unions.

Workers ‘Scared to File for a Union’

An hour south of Bangkok, past a traffic-choked highway near the country’s industrialized Eastern seaboard, union leaders gather at the newly-built Workers’ Training Center in Chonburi. Removing their shoes as they enter the spacious main hall which is presided over at one end by a colorful Buddhist shrine and a portrait of the revered late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, activists convene around a table to update each other on the most recent issues facing their unions.

Thailand, garment workers, human rights, Solidarity Center

Textile union General Secretary Kornchanok Thanakhun says one the biggest challenges in organizing factory unions is that “the employer dismisses union leaders” as soon as workers become interested in forming a union. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Completed in December 2015 with funds collected by TEAM union activists, the TEAM Workers’ Training Center is a symbolic embodiment of Thai unions’ ongoing struggle to unify and coordinate their efforts. Twenty years ago, no unions represented workers in Thailand’s industrialized Eastern provinces. With the support of partners around the world, including the Solidarity Center, worker activists have formed some 1,000 factory-level unions representing more than 100,000 workers in the area, where corporations from China, Japan and the United States vie for regulatory breaks the Thai government offers to lure private investors into setting up factories in the eastern provinces. Two decades ago, the government created a special economic zone along the Eastern seaboard, transforming it into the “Detroit of Southeast Asia,” according to some union leaders.

Foreign exports, primarily computer hard disks and road vehicles, account for 60 percent of Thailand’s GDP, and last year exports grew by 6.6 percent, the highest in the past four years. With regional competition intensifying, the Thai government is joining with private investors in a $45 billion set of large-scale infrastructure projects in three eastern seaboard provinces that include a new international airport, port facilities, highways and railway links.

The relentless demands for ever lower costs throughout the global supply chain reverberate across industrial plants in Thailand, where Kornchanok Thanakhun, general secretary of the Textile Workers Federation of Thailand (TWFT), says one of the biggest challenges in organizing factory unions is that “the employer dismisses union leaders” as soon as workers become interested in forming a union.

Thailand, Workers Training Center, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Thai union leaders meet frequently at the Workers’ Training Center in Chonburi. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The “process to remedy fired workers takes years, that’s why workers are scared to file for a union,” says Manus Inklud, president of Petroleum and Chemical Workers Federation of Thailand and 27-year production auditor at Goodyear.

To address the issue, unions across Thailand have been urging the government to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 87 and Convention 98 covering the freedom of association and the right to form a union and bargain collectively. Ratification would provide worker rights’ advocates with a strong basis for challenging employer efforts to break unions by firing workers because currently, “Thai law doesn’t provide us with a lot of support,” says Thanakhun, speaking through a translator.

Boosting Minimum Wage, Maintaining Public Services

Union activists also have pooled their efforts in a nationwide campaign to increase the minimum wage and bring it in line with inflation and cost of living. Union leaders say the government’s recent creation of provincial minimum wage tiers, governed by labor-management-government subcommittees, are manipulated by employers, and they recommend re-instituting a single national minimum wage structure.

Another key campaign involves rallying opposition to a proposed bill that would privatize crucial government services. The TLSC and its affiliate, the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC), recently petitioned the National Legislative Assembly to pull the Governance and Administration of State Enterprises draft bill, with SERC Vice General Secretary Pongthiti Pongsilamanee reiterating that the government is increasingly focused on profitability at the expense of public service.

The union coalition also is holding educational meetings around the newly enacted 2017 Labor Protection Act, which unions say could weaken union bargaining power by normalizing the use of lower-paid student trainees in the workplace.

A Union to Improve Their Children’s Future

Factory workers often are not aware of how a union can improve safety on the job, says Paitoon Bangrong, president of the Eastern Labor Union, Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Advancing worker rights across Thailand could not happen without union organizers like Paitoon Bangrong, whose tireless efforts to sign up new members encounter numerous obstacles—including from workers themselves.

Bangrong, a 17-year union member and metal pipe production line worker, is president of the Eastern Labor Union and works with TEAM to help workers form unions. He says many workers he talks with do not understand the benefits of unions, in part because unions receive negative media coverage. So he explains to them how unions improve safety on the job and bolster other fundamental worker rights, and then asks if their children will work in the plants.

“If their children work in the plant, they want good conditions,” he says. “They realize a union can provide better opportunities and working conditions for their children.”

Thailand, factory unions, worker rights, human rights, Solidarity Center

Sema Suebtrakul, who has organized some 100 factory unions over 20 years, relaxes at the Workers’ Training Center in Chonburi, Thailand. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Safety issues are rampant at plants without unions, says Sema Suebtrakul, who has worked as a union organize for 20 years, literally helping form the first unions in the country’s Eastern seaboard. Factories use second-hand machines without safety protections, buildings are rent by fractures that could lead to collapse, fire safety equipment doesn’t work, pregnant workers are not allowed to sit and dirty restrooms are a health hazard.

Now an organizer with the Federation of Thai Autoworkers Union/TEAM, Suebtrakul estimates he has organized more than 100 plant level unions. Originally a storekeeper with some legal background, Suebtrakul became aware of the sometime inhumane working conditions at industrial factories through a friend who was a union organizer. After he became involved in helping workers form unions, he became hooked on helping people, he says.

Thailand, autoworkers, industrial unions, Solidarity Center, worker rights

“If you don’t have union, you can’t negotiate with employers, you don’t have as good benefits or safety conditions”—Larey Youpensuk Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Larey Youpensuk, president of TAW, which represents 9,400 members at 13 plants, says “there is a clear difference between union plants and non-union plants.”

“If you don’t have a union, you can’t negotiate with employers, you don’t have as good benefits or safety conditions.” Youpensuk says he’s proud of how he in his seven years as president, his leadership helped expand the union from five plants to 13, through intensive union organizing efforts with TAW’s parent federation, the Thai Auto Workers’ Union.

Youpensuk also beams with pride when talking about his fundraising efforts to help build the Workers’ Training Center and create a gathering point for Thai unions. Youpensuk and other Thai leaders are well aware that cohesion and coordination—solidarity!—throughout the labor movement is essential for success.

Thai Public Employees Campaign to Save Jobs, Union Rights

Thai Public Employees Campaign to Save Jobs, Union Rights

Public-sector employees in Thailand are stepping up their campaign to save jobs and hard-won benefits that would be lost if lawmakers approve a draft law privatizing state-owned companies.

Some 50,000 state enterprise workers will lose their jobs or transfer to companies with fewer benefits, and their collective bargaining process will also be at risk under the Public Holding Company Act, according to union leaders of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC). SERC, a Solidarity Center ally and Thailand’s largest trade union organization, represents 180,000 members.

Thailand, Solidarity Center, Sawit Kaewvarn, unions, human rights

SERC leaders and members are challenging a proposed law that would deny public employees the right to form unions. Credit: Solidarity Center

The dynamic Thai union activist Sawit Kaewvarn last week was elected SERC general secretary by SERC’s Executive General Assembly and plans to take a strong stand to stop privatization of jobs. SERC also is concerned the draft bill may lead to exemption of several state enterprises under the State Enterprise Labor Relations Act (SELRA), effectively prohibiting workers’ legal rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Last year after the bill was introduced, hundreds of SERC members gathered to petition the prime minister to express their disagreement with the bill, which they say could maximize profit-making at the expense of public services.

Kaewvarn also is president of Thai Labor Solidarity Committee (TLSC), which is campaigning for Thailand to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 87 (freedom of association) and Convention 98 (right to organize and bargain collectively), and national labor law reform. Earlier this past summer, he mobilized TLSC members for a rally at the Ministry of Labor office in Bangkok to follow up on TLSC’s May Day demands, which include the ratification of the two conventions, a fair and living wage, implementation of occupational safety and health standards, effective allocation of safety and health funding, and enforcement of worker rights.

Thailand, Sawit Kaewvarn, Solidarity Center, unions, human rights

Sawit Kaewvarn was recently elected general secretary of SERC, a Solidarity Center ally and Thailand’s largest trade union organization. Credit: Solidarity Center

As TLSC president, Kaewvarn also is leading worker opposition to a Ministry of Labor proposal to expand the retirement benefit age from 55 to 60. Most workers in the private sector will be especially burdened, he says, because they must retire at age 55 and would struggle for five years before being entitled to the government-provided retirement benefit.

In June, Kaewvarn was elected general secretary of the State Railway Union of Thailand (SRUT). The election followed one last year in which the Ministry of Labor refused to register the results, which would have put Kaewvarn and his slate in office. Following a letter by the AFL-CIO to Thailand’s prime minister and Ministry of Labor urging the government to recognize the election results or order new elections, the government called for new elections in March and has now registered the results.

In 2009, Kaewvarn led Thai railway workers in a protest against unsafe working conditions, following a deadly train derailment. The State Railway of Thailand then dismissed several SRUT executive committee members, including Kaewvarn. Railway strikes are illegal in Thailand, a law the ILO says violates freedom of association. A National Human Rights Commission of Thailand found that the State Railway of Thailand violated freedom of association.

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