Strikes in April by migrant workers in Thailand exposed slave-like conditions in food processing factories whose products end up in European, Australian, and American retail stores like Walmart.
On April 8, about 1,000 Cambodian workers at the Pattana Seafood factory in Songkla, Thailand gathered at the gates of the factory after they were told that their food allowance had been cut.
“The management apparently decided to reduce the benefit for the workers and almost immediately a protest erupted,” said migrant advocate Andy Hall from Thailand’s Mahidol University to 774 ABC Melbourne shortly after the strike erupted. “Workers were very angry so they gathered outside of the gate, and it started to get a little bit heated and there were police brought in, shots fired and now we just have a situation where we have a lock-out.”
The workers’ anger was prompted by their employer’s decision to reduce their food allowance in order to claw back money from a pay raise resulting from the Thai government’s minimum wage increase that became effective April 1. But there was more that fueled the workers indignation.
The workers had been recruited by a labor broker CDM Trading Manpower. Most of the workers signed a two-year contract with CDM that included, according to the Bangkok Post “a room to stay, a mattress, pillow, plate and a food allowance.”
When they arrived at the seafood processing plant, they found that they had to work 26 days a month and that half their pay was deducted and given to CDM for what the workers called “bondage payment.” They also found that if they didn’t like their jobs, they couldn’t leave because CDM confiscated their passports.
“Most of the workers wanted to go home, but we will be in debt from preparing to travel and an unknown amount we are told to pay to get passports and transportation,” said a 20-year old Cambodian worker from Kampong Thom to the Post.
Pattana Seafood supplies shrimp and other seafood to Rubicon, a major supplier to Walmart, reports 774 ABC Melbourne.
A similar strike about the same time took place at Vita, a pineapple canning factory in Kanchanturi province. According to the Post, 73 percent of Vita’s shipment to the US went to Walmart and were sold under the store’s value brand Great Value.
Vita employs about 7,000 workers at its factory in Kanchanturi. Many of them are immigrants from Myanmar and of these about 1,000 were working without the proper documents.
About 4,000 of the workers struck when their employer reduced their food allowance to offset minimum wage increases.
Both disputes were finally settled when workers who wanted to return home were allowed to do so; however, those who remained had their food allowance reduced and still work in semi-bondage to their labor contractor.
Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), “an organization of Walmart workers, for Walmart workers,” is urging people to sign an online petition to demand that Walmart take immediate action to end the slave-like conditions at the factories of its suppliers.
“These egregious violations must not stand,” said a recent e-mail from OUR. “Tell Walmart that as the largest grocer in the world and the largest importer of shrimp in the US, they have responsibility to call for an end to these abuses.”