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Thailand Tuna Plant Workers Win 'Unprecedented' Settlement

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Last summer, there were stories coming out of Thailand that slave labor was being used to catch and process the seafood we eat. They were nearly all from Miramar. Because of reports of widespread labor abuses, several countries are now considering a ban on imports of Thai seafood. And it may be having an effect. This week, a rare victory. A tuna processing plant in Thailand agreed to pay compensation for abusing its migrant workers. Andy Hall is a British labor activist based in Bangkok who helped with the case. Thanks so much for joining us.

ANDY HALL: No worries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us first about the workers' complaints.

HALL: This is a case that came to our attention last June when I was doing some research with colleagues. It was a factory which had essentially been abusing workers for many, many years. It hadn't been paying them the minimum wages, it hadn't been giving them the right amount of overtime, it had been unlawfully deducting many, many amounts of money from their salary. There was allegations of child labor. There was allegations of forced overtime, excessive work hours. When we got that, we took it straight to the Thai Tuna Industry Association, which is the main tuna body in Thailand, and then we tried to find some ways to solve the problems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The company, Golden Prize Tuna Canning, right, agreed to pay a thousand dollars per worker. How far does that really go though in satisfying their grievances?

HALL: I think the payments were actually a lot more than that. We estimate that up to $3 or $4 million has actually been paid out to the workers. Some workers were paid as much as $2,000 to $3,000. It really is a very rare victory that you'll find in this kind of situation. And we have decided it's not because of the life detection system and the general system because we've been pushing that system for many months now and it's failed to deliver any results in this case, certainly because the workers were incredibly well-organized. They had solidarity. We were working with media. We were working to push buttons, to get senior people involved in this case. And therefore we've got this settlement. But this is a victory for the workers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, Thailand's seafood industry is the third largest in the world. And much of it is ending up on our dinner tables. How important was the threat to ban imports to this particular case, do you think?

HALL: It's important. What we see for many years, Thailand essentially, you know, it has very limited capacity even to address these issues because they're out of control and they have been for many decades. So we have a limited capacity. We also have a limited commitment by the government where we're working in a migration system where there is essentially no rule of law or very limited rule of law. Whatever policies there are, which there aren't that many in terms of migrant labor, they're undermined with corruption, abuse and systematic exploitation. So I think that the fact that recently we've seen these threats to boycott, we've seen this massive trade sanction threat, it's really had an impact on Thailand because essentially the money is what counts for many people in this industry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What can consumers do to make sure that the food that they eat comes from sources that are ethical?

HALL: I think that the big challenge that we find these days - and again, I think consumers have a lot of power to push their supermarkets to putsch the purchases of seafood to ensure that things are ethical in Thailand. We would like to see consumers putting pressure on the supermarkets, on the people who are buying, to ensure that the workers are empowered to have their rights and to get access to their labor rights and their basic human rights, not just a top-down approach. We want to see the bottom-up approach also.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andy Hall is a lawyer and labor activist in Thailand. Thanks very much for joining us.

HALL: No worries. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.