Child workers in Thai seafood industry face hazards, injuries - report

BANGKOK, Sept 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children employed in Thailand’s seafood processing industry are more exposed to workplace hazards such as fire or gas, and twice as likely to be injured than minors working in other industries, experts said on Monday.

Under Thai law, the minimum age of employment is 15 years, but many younger children - including migrant children from neighbouring Myanmar - are working illegally and not attending school, they said.

Almost 20 percent of children in the seafood industries reported workplace injuries, compared to 8.4 percent in other workplaces, the International Labour Organisation and the Asia Foundation experts said in a new report.

“In the 21st century no child should be brutalised by exploitation,” said Maurizio Bussi, head of the International Labour Organization’s office in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Migrant children are disproportionately exploited because Thailand’s seafood industry, with exports valued at $3 billion a year, relies heavily on cheap labour, mostly from Myanmar.

Children in the seafood industry work almost 50 hours per week - about 6 hours more than Thai children - and few are aware of child labour laws. Just 30 percent of minors who are above the minimum employment age enjoy the legal protection of a contract, the report said.

Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, is under pressure internationally after rights groups and media investigations accused the seafood industry of using slave labour.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, an international human rights lawyer and professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the country has the laws in place to tackle labour abuses.

“What we need is better enforcement,” Vitit, a member of the ILO Committee of Experts, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the launch of the report. “The question is how do you get children out of this situation?”

The report recommended improving migrant children’s access to early childhood education centres, from the age of three, so they become proficient enough in Thai to enter formal schools in first grade.

It also said part-time schooling for migrant children, in particular 15- to 17-year-olds, would improve their chances of staying in education.

The report found big differences in labour standards between the canned tuna and the shrimp industry.

The shrimp industry, with more than 10,000 farms, traders and processors, is much harder to monitor and regulate than the canned tuna industry, which is dominated by three big players who improved labour standards after pressure from overseas buyers.

Governments, buyers, producers, NGOs and international organisations should work together to improve labour conditions, the report said.

In addition, procedures for migrant workers to register with the Thai government should be simplified, while buyers abroad should be held accountable to work with suppliers to maintain international standards.