Burmese migrants fuel Thailand's shrimp industry

As many as 2 million Burmese migrants fuel Thailand’s growing economy. Up to half of these workers are trafficked into the country illegally, fleeing military dictatorship and extreme poverty in neighboring Burma.

Without passports or proper documents these workers are easy prey for unscrupulous brokers on both sides of the border, looking to profit off of their plight. They pay exorbitant fees to traffickers with the promise of freedom and opportunity, only to find years down the road, that they are not much better off.

Relegated to the most menial tasks in the Thai workforce, migrants can spend up to 16 hours a day performing a single task—taking the hard shells off shrimp destined for North American dinner plates. That isn’t the worst of it.

Numerous reports have documented beatings, physical confinement, indentured servitude, meager wages, together with forced and child labour. These workers can’t go to the police or the government for help.

Thailand fears negative press about the industry, and rightly so. Shrimp makes up a significant portion of the Thai economy. In 2009, the United States, which is Thailand’s number one customer, threatened to ban all shrimp imports from Thailand because of recurring allegations in the industry.

Away from the close eye of government officials, we sought out the workers who are afraid to speak out.

Bill Salter on Burmese Labour in Thailand

Darren Fleet interviews Bill Salter, regional director of the International Labour Organization in East Asia, about human trafficking, forced labour and Burmese migration into Thailand. He gives his thoughts on the ‘broker’ system, a network of middlemen who facilitate the transport of migrants from Burma (Myanmar) to shrimp processing jobs. Salter was in Bangkok to address the Thai government and shrimp industry leaders about the threat poor working conditions pose to the reputation and viability of the industry.