Photo Diary – Poverty wages of Burmese shrimp workers in Thailand

24 March 2015

In light of our soon to be published report on the abuses in the Asian shrimp sector, our Fairfood colleagues Wendy Schutte and Imke van Schaaijk travelled to Thailand and spoke to the people that peel hundreds of thousands of kilos of shrimp sold in European supermarkets.

In this photo diary, Wendy and Imke share their experiences from gathering video evidence of how shrimp workers in Thailand struggle to survive on  poverty wages. Most of the workers do not earn enough money to cover their basic needs and wind up living in debt, far away from their families in Burma.

Introduction Thai tourism vs labour-intensive industries

Thailand, famous as a popular holiday destination with its beautiful coastline and hundreds of tropical islands, attracts millions of tourists a year (26.7 million in 2014). Only few of them may be aware that Thailand is also home to a thriving processing and exporting industry of tropical fruits (such as pineapple, mango and banana) and fish (such as shrimp). Thailand is one of the biggest exporters of shrimp in the world and the Thai shrimp industry is worth over one billion USD. Before the shrimps are exported, they are grown on a shrimp farm, harvested, peeled and sometimes even cooked or breaded.

Shrimps on the Talay Mahachai  market in Samut Sakhon

Many of the Thai shrimp peeling sheds are found on the outskirts of Bangkok, some only a 40 minute drive away from this buzzing capital. This area, called Samut Sakhon, is home to a large Burmese migrant working community. They are living – sometimes with their entire  families – in small rooms nestled in concrete compounds that set the scene in Samut Sakhon. The neighbourhood is also home to many large shrimp factories and peeling sheds, which are located next to the basic housing of workers.

We visited the Talay Mahachai market. At this bustling marketplace and in the streets around it, hundreds of Burmese workers were sorting, weighing, deheading and peeling the continuous accretion of shrimp. This type of work can only be done manually, but the workers appeared machine-like: the speediness of their work was such that the camera could barely focus on what was happening. We had our wits about us walking around there, trying to avoid the puddles of water and men running past with big buckets of shrimp.

We were sent away within 15 minutes from the market; they did not want us to film or photograph the workers. We felt as though our western espionage was not welcomed, as they and we knew full well that these labour conditions do not come close to acceptable in the West. Indeed, the workers endure unreasonably long shifts, needing every hour of overtime to compensate for the poverty wages they get paid.

Harsh working conditions

All of the shrimp workers we interviewed told us the same, that without overtime they earn 300 baht a day (8 Euros a day).  This is only half to two thirds of what a living wage should be. Sitting on the floor in the shabby hut of her parents, we interviewed 40-year-old Win. “I must work overtime, even when I’m sick, otherwise my family and I cannot live on the wages. Sometimes we cannot even buy food and we have to borrow money from others with interest.” Win says that this is not even the thing she dislikes the most about her work. In her opinion, the worst problem is that the work supervisors are always screaming at the workers to work faster, and that she is only allowed 30 minutes a day to eat and go to the toilet. “We have to eat quickly and cannot even sit down for the whole day”.

Shrimp workers sorting shrimp on the Talay Mahachai market in Samut Sakhon

Burmese migrant workers

All of the shrimp workers we interviewed are migrants from Burma, unsurprising, given that 90% of the industry’s workforce are Burmese migrants. Many of them have paid a fee to a broker to enter Thailand, and these costs can run up to 14,000 baht (380 Euro). Almost all of them have left their families in Burma. One of the workers told us that he migrated with his wife, while leaving his 12-year-old daughter with her grandmother. They hadn’t seen their daughter in months. The main goal of most workers is to send money back home.  In reality, however, they end up living a life of poverty and harsh working conditions. During their first years in Thailand, they work just to pay off their debts.

Living compound of Burmese shrimp workers near the Talay Mahachai market in Samut Sakhon

Vulnerable workforce

Our aim was to garner video evidence of how these vile working arrangements affect the lives of the workers involved. Most of the workers had never been interviewed before. Indeed, they were reluctant to speak at first, but as we proceeded they began to feel comfortable and shared very honestly what their working conditions and lives are like.

Almost all workers only wanted to be interviewed if they could remain unrecognisable and their real names were not published. At the end of the interview with shrimp worker Win, her mother expressed fears that her daughter could lose her job. She made a quick calculation and told us that losing a job would mean a loss of 5000 baht, which equates to 16 working days.

Shrimp worker Win cleaning her her house after a hard day of work

Group of 110 workers were fired

We also visited the office of Migrant Worker Right Network (MWRN) to interview President Aung Kyaw on MWRN’s work to support migrants to claim their labour and human rights. While we were there, we witnessed first hand how workers’ rights are violated in the shrimp processing industry. A delegation of a group of 110 workers came to the MWRN office to ask assistance. They were all dismissed from the same company without the legal notice of 15 days and found themselves being pushed by the company and labour inspection officials to agree with about a third of the official compensation they are entitled to. The workers filed an official complaint, but did not receive a copy of this complaint.

MWRN, the workers, together with human rights activist Andy Hall and ourselves, headed to the labour inspection office. Thanks to the intervention of MWRN, the workers were given a copy of their complaint. The labour inspection office still has two months to reach an overall decision on the case. Meanwhile, the MWRN has continued negotiating with the company and the managing director has announced that workers will, at least, receive the compensation they are entitled to.

Delegation of fired shrimp workers and the visit to the Labour Inspection office

Interview with dismissed worker

The next day, we went back to Samut Sakhon to interview one of the dismissed shrimp workers and his pregnant wife, who is six months gone. The worker, who was but only a boy, had acted as spokesperson for all workers the day before in the Labour Inspection’s office. It was shocking to see how this smart young man lived with his pregnant wife, in a room measuring 12 square metres, with barely any furniture and a balcony that served as a kitchen. Both the worker and his wife were fired from the company and didn’t get what they were entitled to: 18,000 baht (Eur 482,70) in total. “The wage we earned was just enough to live, just enough to breathe. (…) We had some money saved, which we are spending now, and we are borrowing money from other people. Without any jobs, it will become very difficult when we will get the baby.”

Fired shrimp worker and his pregnant wife in their small appartment of 12 square meters

Follow-up MWRN

The workers are in desperate need of any sort of income and cannot wait on the decision of the labour inspection office. They need to find new jobs as soon as possible. The MWRN is helping them find another workplace and continues the fight for their rightful payments. However, despite that all the 110 dismissed workers may receive the compensation they are entitled to – and may or may not find a new place to work – there is no denying that all uncertainties and risks are put on these vulnerable workers.

Report on Asian shrimp sector

In April, Fairfood will publish a report on the abuses of labourers in the Asian shrimp market, and the Thai shrimp sector will be used as a case study. The report will reveal which European supermarkets sell these shrimps and are responsible for the severe labour conditions of Thailand’s Burmese migrant workers. We will also show how these retailers are the actors that can effect change.

You can support Burmese shrimp workers!

Our visit reaffirmed our conviction that living wages must be paid throughout the shrimp industry’s supply chain. The shrimp workers deserve a living wage for the strenuous work they do and we ask that they be paid this along with just compensation.

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 these Burmese shrimp workers and all shrimp workers in Asia? 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.

Lidl Petition: Pay a living wage across your entire supply chain