BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Burmese migrants who were illegally charged excessive recruitment fees to secure jobs at an electronics manufacturer in Thailand are being compensated in a rare award expected to spotlight a practice known to trap workers in modern slavery.
Cal-Comp Electronics - which supplies to tech giants such as HP Inc - is reimbursing at least 10,000 workers, according to Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), a charity in Thailand, and Electronics Watch, a global watchdog.
The repayments - revealed exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation - could total about $10 million, an estimate based on the number of workers and average sum of $660 they paid which was more than six times the legal limit in Myanmar, MWRN said.
A 2018 report by Electronics Watch found Thai recruitment agencies supplying workers to Cal-Comp had demanded kickbacks from brokers in Myanmar, with the costs then passed on to the Burmese migrants who had to take out loans to cover the outlay.
Labor brokers worldwide impose fees on people seeking jobs abroad, a practice widely condemned by human rights groups and the United Nations as it can saddle migrants with large debts and render them unable to leave exploitative employers.
The compensation process was confirmed by Cal-Comp although the company did not respond to questions about how many workers would be reimbursed or the amount they would each receive.
Two payslips seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed that Cal-Comp workers had started receiving repayments last month ranging from the equivalent of $395 to $560 in Thai baht.
“The company ... has developed appropriate remediation plans for workers which has yielded substantial successes by including but not limited to the ongoing repayment of recruitment fees and costs to workers,” said Jenny Chou, a spokeswoman for Cal-Comp.
While there is no data on the repayment of recruitment fees by companies, Neha Misra of the Solidarity Center - a U.S.-based workers rights’ advocacy group - said $10 million would be the biggest single compensation award she had encountered.
U.S. behemoth HP, the world’s second biggest computer maker, Hitachi Ltd and Konica Minolta, both Japanese companies - all of which buy from Cal-Comp - said they were investigating.
“We require suppliers to uphold the highest standards of corporate ethics,” a spokesman for HP said in a statement.
Cal-Comp is a subsidiary of Taiwan-based New Kinpo Group, which is a member of the Responsible Business Association (RBA) - a coalition of brands committed to supporting workers’ rights.
The RBA’s code of conduct includes a zero fee recruitment policy, which members agree to as part of their membership.
“The standards that well-known brands say they are following aren’t really happening,” Sein Htay, secretary general of MWRN. “This is how it will turn out if no-one performs any checks.”
In response to emailed questions about Cal-Comp and New Kinpo Group as part of the RBA, a spokesman said a subsidiary of one of its members was repaying “recruitment fees and costs to workers”. New Kinpo Group did not reply to requests for comment.
Thailand has 3 million registered migrant workers on its books but the U.N. migration agency, IOM, estimates there are at least 2 million more working informally across the country.
Suwan Duangta, deputy director-general of Thailand’s Department of Employment refused to comment on the Cal-Comp case but said a 2017 Thai law bans recruitment fees being levied on migrant workers in the country.
However the 2018 report by Electronics Watch found that Thai recruitment agencies supplying workers to Cal-Comp had since demanded ever larger sums of money from labor brokers in Myanmar, who then passed on the costs to the Burmese jobseekers.
“Whilst remaining in compliance with Thailand’s ... laws, systematic exploitation of migrant workers has arisen in Cal-Comp’s migrant worker recruitment channels,” the report read.
Myanmar’s labor attache in Thailand, Myo Myint Naing, said he was unaware of the recruitment fees repayments by Cal-Comp but stated the Burmese government had set 150,000 kyat ($99) as the maximum cost for its citizens seeking jobs abroad.
While more major brands have publicly acknowledged concerns around recruitment fees in their supply chains in recent years, activists said few had taken proper action to address the issue.
Apple Inc in 2015 banned recruitment fees being charged in its supply chain, and its suppliers have repaid $31 million to more than 36,000 workers, according to its website.
“Companies also need to do more to ensure workers never pay fees in the first place,” said Misra from the Solidarity Center.
All of the Cal-Comp workers interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they were informed that they would be compensated, but were not told how much they would receive.
“Sometimes I’m stressed out and feel sick when I think of paying back the money I borrowed,” said one Burmese worker on condition of anonymity. “I hope the company returns the money.”
($1 = 1,514.0000 kyat)
Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth, Additional Reporting by Thin Lei Win, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org