Fighting for the voiceless in Thailand’s shrimp sector – Interview with Burmese human right activist Aung Kyaw

26 April 2015

In the light of our research on the poverty wages and harsh labour conditions of Burmese shrimp workers in Thailand, we interviewed human rights activist Aung Kyaw, president of the Migrant Worker Right Network (MWRN) in Thailand, who left his native Burma to empower migrant workers in Thailand’s seafood processing sector.

Thailand employs many disenfranchised migrant workers that don’t know where to go when their labour rights are violated. Many of them are from Burma and are working for next to no pay. The MWRN promotes migrant workers’ rights, creates awareness in the migrant community about labour rights, and advocates policies that seek to improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers.

 In this interview, Aung Kyaw talks about his courageous work in Thailand standing up for Burmese migrant workers.

 “In the shrimp processing industry low wages are a big issue.”

What are the main challenges for Burmese workers in the shrimp industry?

There are about three million migrant workers in Thailand, mainly from Cambodia, Laos and Burma. These workers have few job opportunities in their home countries, which is why they come to Thailand.

They commonly enter the country illegally, for which they pay high fees. They usually use a broker to apply for a job. If it is a good job, then it is ok because they can repay the money and send money home. If it is not a good job, they are unable to save money and send back money to their families. For most of their lives, they have to work hard.

Many work in the construction, textiles, seafood, fruit and other agricultural sectors. In the seafood industry, Burmese workers do all the low-skilled work while the supervisors are Thai.

In the shrimp processing industry, low wages are a big issue. Workers fall under one of two types of contract. The ‘daily workers’ receive a fixed amount – the legal minimum wage of 300 baht for an 8-hour working day.

Others are paid based on the amount of shrimp they process, the ‘piecemeal workers’. Before 2012, their wages were high, but due to an outbreak of shrimp disease (Early Mortality Disease (EMS)), the workers now work longer to earn less than they previously did. The shrimp are small and supply is unsteady, so workers can’t peel enough to make a decent living. The situation for piecemeal workers is extremely volatile.

Furthermore, workers have to pay for their equipment and uniforms. Even though, according to Thai law, the company should provide these. Workers must also pay for their work permit and the cost to report to immigration every 90 days. None of this is affordable.

MWRN researches working conditions in some of Thailand’s export-focused industries. Many migrants work in factories where we found that they do not receive the same labour rights as Thai workers. We share our findings with the international community to highlight the bad conditions of these factories.

Aung Kyaw at work in MWRN’s office

How has Fairfood contributed to the work of MWRN?

With the support of Fairfood, we have been able to reach out to workers in the shrimp processing industry and to better understand their situation. Buying companies and consumers in the EU should know about the working conditions and demand the labour rights of the workers.

“When I arrived in Thailand, I started working in seafood processing. (…) The employers exploited us. They didn’t pay minimum wages; working hours were at least up to ten, twelve hours a day. (…) If you were sick and wanted to go to bed early, you had to stay to finish the job.”

What motivated you to come to Thailand?

My story is at odds with the story of most migrant workers. When I lived in Myanmar I was a political activist and participated in the ’88 demonstrations. The government followed me often, imposed travel restrictions and I had to report to the police regularly. I was even imprisoned for a year. They watched my family and I didn’t feel safe at all. That is why I moved to Thailand in 1998. I knew about the migrant workers there and wanted to empower them with my experiences.

What are your experiences of working in the shrimp processing industry?

When I arrived, I started working in seafood processing. In my first job, I had to lift lots of heavy things, hurt my back and left after three years. I then worked in two peeling sheds and a larger shrimp processing company. The employers exploited us. They didn’t pay minimum wages; working hours were at least up to ten, twelve hours a day. They made us do overtime. If you were sick and wanted to go to bed early, you had to stay to finish the job. Some factories beat the workers if they ever asked for sick leave or holidays or did not work hard enough. It is not right; they exploit workers and violate their human rights.

I had to put a stop to this, so wherever I worked, I educated my co-workers on their rights and organised them to negotiate with the employer. In the first peeling shed, the employer was really strong and powerful; he accused me of undermining the business and called the police. They dismissed me on the spot at three in the morning. I had a newborn child at this point.

I then sought employment at another peeling shed. Meanwhile, I joined the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), a Thai NGO that focuses on protecting the rights of migrant workers. I visited them every Sunday and was further trained by them. The fact that I knew my rights shielded me in a way from more harassment.

Again, I started educating my co-workers on their labour rights and tried to organise them so we would receive the minimum wage. We never received it though, so after a year I looked for a factory with better conditions. Again, the workers were exploited. We demonstrated twice in 2007 to negotiate with factory management. This was very successful: we received full labour rights and established direct contact between the employer and employee. We also asked for the realisation of a welfare committee within the company. The company authorised this and I was elected president with an overwhelming majority. The welfare committee has a running time of two years; I was elected for two terms.

Aung Kyaw joining a group of Burmese shrimp workers to the Labour Inspection Office to ask for a copy of their official complaint against a company that summarily dismissed a group of 110 workers

Aung Kyaw joining a group of Burmese shrimp workers to the Labour Inspection Office to ask for a copy of their official complaint against a company that summarily dismissed a group of 110 workers

 

How did you become involved with the MWRN and what is your current role?

MWRN was founded in March 2009 and I joined the organisation after five months. The goals of MWRN aligned well with what I was already doing: educating migrant workers on their rights. In December 2009, most of the workers wanted me to be the president because of my first-hand experience. Since 2009, I have been the official president of MWRN. At first, I could combine this with my work in the shrimp processing industry, but we got more and more work so I decided to commit full-time to my role as president.

Do workers in the shrimp processing industry earn the minimum wage of 300 baht per day?

Most of the daily workers earn 300 baht a day (8 euro a day), and if they are employed at a good factory, they receive 56 baht per hour for overtime. At some factories, the workers do not earn minimum wage; they get 250 or 280 baht. Overall, most people make somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 baht a month (between 185 and 240 Euro a month), working six days a week. If they do overtime, they might make 10,000 (267 Euro) baht a month. Their expenses are very high though, so the wage does not cover their basic needs.

“If only one member of the family works in Thailand, they barely earn enough to provide for food for themselves and the family they support.”

Fairfood defines a living wage as sufficient to pay for food, decent housing, energy and water bills, clothing, transport, education, health care, communication (phone costs for example), participation in socio-cultural activities, household goods, savings, and childcare. Can workers afford all of these things?

Most workers come to Thailand with a plan. They think ‘I work here for three years, save up and go back to start my own business’, for example. When they get here, they cannot save enough to fulfil their dream. Workers can’t pay for all these things or save anything. They also eat poor food.

Lone workers share a room with three or four people just to save whatever they can to support their families. If only one member of the family works in Thailand, they barely earn enough to provide for food for themselves and the family they support. If there are more working, two brothers or sisters say, they can save a bit more. Their parents spend all the money that is sent home on food, living costs etc., so they can’t save anything for the future.

The married couples that come to Thailand share living costs so they can remit more. Some already have children in Myanmar. Every month they have to send money home for education, childcare etc. For a couple that has children here, they are unable to save anything whatsoever.

“We cannot just rely on the Thai government, so we have to rely on international buyers to improve conditions. They are the main agent to bring about change.”

What needs to change in the Thai shrimp industry?

The government should watch the factories; the employer must follow the rules and international buyers should always check the factories and know what should improve. The buyers should be able to check with workers what is actually happening on the ground. We cannot just rely on the Thai government, so we have to rely on international buyers to improve conditions. They are the main agent to bring about change. We want consumers to know the real situation of the migrant workers. They shouldn’t buy from companies that violate rights.

European retail giant Lidl is one of the supermarkets that is linked to the exploitation of Burmese workers in Thailand’s shrimp processing industry.

Do you want to support Aung Kyaw and the MWRIN in standing up for living wages for Burmese shrimp workers in Thailand? Tell Lidl to stop paying lip service and start paying living wages. Sign our petition and make Lidl pay living wages, starting with the exploited workers in their shrimp supply chain!

For a detailed account of the injustices of the Thai shrimp industry and of what must be done to improve working conditions early in the supply chain, see our recent report – Caught in a Trap.