Sun, Sep 18, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Facebook post inspires landmark case for migrant workers in Thailand

Burmese workers, who are often not aware of their rights, face abuse by employers and officials who rationalize workplace violations

By Alisa Tang  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BANGKOK

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Tun Tun Win and his coworkers from Myanmar thought life was fine at the Thammakaset chicken farm in central Thailand, where they reared hundreds of thousands of birds for export to the EU.

The migrants clocked 20 hours a day for 40 days straight, shoveling litter and culling the sick among the birds as they grew from chicks to poultry for slaughter.

Then 10-hour days for three weeks cleaning the warehouse-sized coops at the Thammakaset chicken farm in Lopburi province.

And finally they got three days off.

All that work for what they figured was a fair wage: about US$7 a day, with free rent and electricity.

“We thought our employer was a nice guy because he gave us rooms, and we didn’t have to pay rent,” Tun Tun Win said. “We stayed for free, and we got our money.”

More than 3 million migrants work in Thailand, the vast majority from neighboring Myanmar, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Many are exploited on farms and in factories across the country, facing an uphill battle for compensation and justice against multi-tiered corporate supply chains, rights groups say.

That is if they even know they are being exploited in the first place.

It was a smartphone and a Facebook post that opened Tun Tun Win’s eyes to the severity of his work conditions — and led to a landmark lawsuit pitting migrant workers against a corporation at the top of the food chain.

The case highlights widespread ignorance among both workers and employers about labor rights, and workplace norms seen as violations in the closely scrutinized global supply chain.

It all began last year after Tun Tun Win bought a new phone, and a “chicken doctor,” one of the farm’s veterinarians, introduced him to social media.

Lying in bed next to his wife one night, he saw a post about tuna plant workers from Myanmar who had been overworked and underpaid. They had received more than US$1 million in an unprecedented settlement in March.

The Facebook post by the local non-profit Migrant Worker Rights Network inspired Tun Tun Win and 13 coworkers to take action.

In a lawsuit filed at a labor court earlier this month following unsuccessful negotiations with the company and local authorities, they are demanding US$1.3 million in compensation and civil damages.

The suit alleges forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, passport confiscation and limited freedom of movement.

Crucially, the action is against both Thammakaset and the buyer of the farm’s poultry — agricultural giant Betagro, which exports food worldwide.

‘TEST CASE’

Andy Hall, a prominent British human rights activist in Thailand who has consulted on several cases involving migrants, said the litigation was an important test case.

“We’re trying to hold Betagro responsible for the system of contract farming,” he said. “If we can, it will have huge implications for contract farming and the responsibility of corporate supply chains across Thailand.”

Part of the workers’ evidence includes pictures snapped on Tun Tun Win’s phone and shared on Facebook, including time-stamped cards — one showing a worker clocking in on May 24 at 6:54am, out at 5pm, in again at 7:02pm, then out at 5:37am.

That is a total of 20 hours and 41 minutes.

In an interview, Thammakaset owner Chanchai Pheamphon said he had not fully understood the requirements under Thai law and agreed he had underpaid staff as well as illegally deducting rent and utilities from their daily wages.

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