SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Zin Mar was a housewife in the Burmese city of Bago when she saw an advertisement for a job at Thai Union Group, a global seafood supplier and the world’s biggest producer of tuna.
The 44-year-old paid a local recruitment agency about 4,300 Thai baht ($140) - less than half the sum that most migrants from Myanmar pay to win work in neighboring Thailand.
Zin Mar is among the 23,000 Burmese workers Thai Union employed under what the company calls its ethical migrant recruitment policy.
Three in four of its workers are migrants in a company that operates in 13 countries and is considered a leader in efforts to clean up an industry that was rife with worker abuse.
Four years after the Thai seafood industry came under fire for its work practices, the government and private sector have introduced a raft of measures - from worker contracts to tighter laws - to clean up the multi-billion dollar sector.
Thai Union was among the first to react, though campaigners say smaller firms have copied its lead and the pace of reform must continue if the industry is to ward off bad practice.
The industry was badly in need of a cleanup.
In 2014, it was accused of widespread slavery, trafficking and violence on fishing boats and in processing factories.
Thai Union was among the first in an industry worth $6.6 billion to adopt an ethical recruitment policy in 2016, with help from the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), a local non-profit assisting migrant workers, to reduce worker debt.
Debt bondage is one of the world’s most prevalent forms of modern slavery, affecting 610,000 people in Thailand, shows the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Under debt bondage, workers are tricked into paying to get a job, then end up trapped in a never-ending cycle of repayments that effectively means they work for free and are enslaved.
Under the more ethical Thai Union policy, it pays the recruitment fees, while workers pay about 4,300 baht for permits, health checks, visas and other services.
One of the first collaborations between the private sector and civil society, it spawned a host of copies, such as the Seafood Task Force, a coalition of businesses and charities that regularly audits fishing vessels to prevent human rights abuses.
Charoen Pokphand Foods, Thailand’s largest agriculture conglomerate, has worked for two years with a campaign group that helps migrant workers lodge complaints about their company.
Another firm, Seafresh Industry, has joined with the anti-trafficking Issara Institute to set up a migrant helpline.
“There’s an increasing dialogue taking place between industry and civil society,” said Darian McBain, who joined Thai Union in 2015 as global director of corporate affairs and sustainability.
Thailand has 3 million migrant workers on its books; the United Nations estimates there are at least 2 million more working illegally across the country.
Many are mired in debt or were trafficked into Thailand against their will, worker rights activists say.
About 55% of seafood processing workers paid a recruitment fee in Thailand averaging 11,000 baht ($360), according to a 2018 report by the International Labour Organization.
“The first thing we did was give MWRN access to our facility so they could talk to workers,” said McBain. “And what they found was that migrant workers were arriving from Myanmar in large debts that had built up as they journeyed to Thailand.”
The company stopped employing migrants who had already got to Thailand and began recruiting directly from Myanmar through International Focus, an agent trained on the new policy.
MWRN then ensures the recruits do not pay any extra fees.
“We have found cases of brokers charging workers up to 500,000 kyat ($327) to find work with Thai Union, and when this happens, we investigate what money they paid and who they paid it to and if necessary we’d pay it back,” MWRN secretary general Sein Htay told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
About 500,000 baht of fees have been returned to Thai Union workers, he said.
Now the challenge is to ensure workers pay no fees.
Jacques-chai Chomthongdi, a policy and campaign manager at British charity Oxfam, said workers could pay up to four times the legal limit of 150,000 kyat at home to get work abroad.
“Workers still have to bear these costs, and those in debt are at risk of forced labor,” Chomthongdi said.
He spoke on behalf of a coalition of civil society organizations that advise the Thai seafood industry.
Thai Union was a trailblazer in fighting modern slavery, he said, but smaller firms are now adopting similar policies in a bid to stamp out exploitation during the recruitment process.
“Other companies, some with a much smaller scale, are starting to catch up,” said Chomthongdi.
“This is a welcome development. However, if they (Thai Union) don’t adapt and ensure that the implementation of existing good policies are maintained rigorously, they might eventually become a follower.”
In 2015, the European Union (EU) gave Thailand a “yellow card” warning for failing to prevent illegal and unregulated fish from entering the supply chain and ending up in Europe. It required Thailand to clean up in six months or face a trade ban.
The EU removed the yellow card in January this year in light of efforts by Thailand to combat human trafficking and improve conditions for workers.
But fisheries associations - emboldened by a change in government - are now pushing for a relaxation to the rules.
Among the demands: dropping age restrictions so 16-year-olds can work on fishing boats, scrapping vessel inspections; letting vessels swap out crew and catch at sea, far from any oversight.
“One of the main challenges Thailand is facing at the moment is ensuring that the reforms that have been painstakingly introduced over the past five years are not swiftly removed and replaced with policies that would return the industry to ‘business as usual’,” said Steve Trent, executive director of Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an advocacy group that investigates environmental and human rights abuses.
Industry experts are also urging Thailand to grant migrant workers the same rights in terms of freedom to organize and collective bargaining as Thai workers.
At Thai Union, employees can email their concerns, post suggestions to post boxes or call a third-party hotline.
“Collaboration and engagement is key to solving the world’s big challenges like ending modern slavery,” McBain said.
Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth @nanchanokw; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. 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