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Thailand: poultry workers cry fowl amid claim they 'slept on floor next to 28,000 birds'
Workers at farms supplying one of Thailand’s largest chicken export firms say they suffered labour abuses including 22-hour shifts and the seizure of passports
A chicken farm in Thailand. Myanmarese workers at Thammakaset Farm 2 say that a once-weekly supervised visit to a local market was their only contact with the outside world. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Modern-day slavery in focus
Myint, 50, claims that for four and a half years he worked 22-hour shifts at a poultry farm that supplies one of Thailand’s largest chicken export companies.
By day, says Myint, he would kill up to 500 birds for use in items such as ready meals and pet food. By night – or what little of it they were allegedly afforded – he and his fellow Myanmarese workers claim 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.
The workers claim that if they were too tired to work, their meagre salaries were docked. If they wanted to leave, too bad – their passports had been confiscated. A once-weekly, two-hour-long supervised visit to a local market for personal groceries was their only opportunity to see the outside world.
“We were treated like slaves,” says Myint’s younger colleague, Nayto, speaking from an NGO safehouse where the 14 workers are now awaiting compensation. “All day and all night we had to work. I don’t want anyone else to have to face the same ordeal.”
Thailand, one of the world’s biggest chicken exporters, is better known for its troubled seafood industry, rife with practices akin to modern-day slavery. But the Thai poultry industry – which exports roughly 41% of its entire broiler poultry meat production to Europe – is similarly riddled with allegations of abuse, debt bondage, document confiscation, high recruitment fees, long working hours and abysmal pay, research has found.
Rural, isolated farms mean abuses often go unnoticed or unpunished, while complicated supply chains mean global buyers are frequently ignorant of workplace problems, activists say. Thammakaset Farm 2, where Myint was employed, directly supplied Betagro. The company is one of Thailand’s top five chicken exporters along with Charoen Pokphand Foods (CP Foods), Cargill, GFPT and Leamthong, which together account for 70-75% of all Thai chicken exports.
Research published late last year by Finnwatch, a civic organisation working for global corporate responsibility, found that labour abuses including high recruitment fees and withholding of documents had taken place at other big chicken farms, including some owned by CP Foods, a major Thai food conglomerate. In 2014, the Guardian found evidence of slavery in the conglomerate’s seafood supply chain; CP Foods subsequently issued a response.
Just how much Thai chicken ends up in the UK is difficult to determine: nearly 40% of all imported processed poultry meat in the UK comes directly from Thailand, according to official figures (pdf). But numbers are likely to be far higher, according to Finnwatch, as Thai chicken used in ready meals and pet food, if processed in the EU, is likely to be sold as a product from an EU “country of origin” instead of from Thailand.
The 13 men and women who worked alongside Myint at the farm in Lopburi, central Thailand, allege they were forced to work from 7am until 5pm, then again from 7pm until 5am, nearly every day, without holiday, sick days or overtime. Ranging in age from 20 to 50, they claim they were paid far below the Thai minimum wage and faced regular deductions for utility and accommodation fees, despite sleeping on the floor, and next to the chickens at peak times.
“[The work] was totally different to what we were originally told it would be,” says Mayday, a female worker. “Our boss lied to us, then lied to the authorities when we spoke out.”
In June, one of the workers happened upon a Facebook post by the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network (MWRN), which eventually led to their freedom. Now, one month later, the workers are being fed and housed at MWRN’s offices in Mahachai, where they are in legal limbo. To receive the £6,300 they are each asking from the farm owner in compensation, they have to remain in Thailand – but their work visas expired on Friday, and now they risk deportation.
Unofficial numbers estimate that as many as 4 million Myanmarese are employed as migrant workers in Thailand, from agriculture and construction to the fishing and food industries.
In a statement issued earlier this month, Betagro confirmed that Thammakaset Farm 2 was one of its suppliers, but said it had since “stopped business operations with the farm until there is a solution to the labour conflict”.
Andy Hall, a British labour activist who works with MWRN, claims that the Thai poultry industry has failed entirely to respond to these allegations of abuse, and said more pressure needed to be put on the industry to clean it up.
In the Thai chicken industry as a whole, conditions are often incredibly dire for migrant workers, says Hall. “Really we’re talking about issues of modern-day slavery. Thai poultry is a significant ingredient in pet food processed by the Thai tuna industry, and in pet food factories in Thailand that is exported across the world in significant amounts. The pet food angle also brings in US, Australian and Canadian retail markets that are not key purchasers of Thai chicken for processed food, like the European market is.”
Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission has pledged an investigation into the Betagro case, as well as a larger investigation into Thailand’s poultry farms as a whole. But according to Hall, officials have not yet questioned the owner of Thammakaset Farm 2, or visited the other farms that are alleged to have labour abuses.
For Myint, patience for justice and compensation is running thin. “I worked for four and a half years, often cramming two days into one,” he says. “I’m tired now, and want to go home.”