Category Archives: Other Migration Issues in Mekong

Migrant worker killed chasing unpaid salary, Xinhua

Police in south China’s Guangdong Province have detained four suspects and launched a pursuit for three others who were allegedly involved in attacking a group of unpaid migrant workers, killing one of them, earlier this month.

After posting an online wanted notice for the three fugitives, police in Yingde City confirmed on Thursday that the alleged assailants were all from the No. 15 Bureau of the China Railway Construction Corp., contractor of the Guangzhou-Lechang Expressway Construction Project. The contractor had employed the migrant workers since September 2013.

The man who was killed has been identified as Zhao Zhiming, who was among the 21 migrant workers attacked by dozens of assailants, who wielded knives and iron bars, on a street about 10 minutes’ walk from the construction project office, on March 6.

Police investigation has found that the workers were dismissed by the employer without payment after the Spring Festival holiday in February. They were refused payment again at the construction site office on March 6, and a short while later they were attacked by assailants who drove three vehicles to chase them down the road.

Zhao Xinbiao, uncle of the dead man, said the contractor owed his nephew 8,000 yuan (1,287 U.S. dollars) in salary. The group of migrant workers together claimed 140,000 yuan in unpaid salary.

Zhao said the workers had nothing personal against Li Yukun, the man alleged to have led the attack against the unarmed workers.

Detectives with the Yingde Bureau of Public Security confirmed that Li, a resident of Yingde City, was the material contractor for the construction project.

A deputy manager of the project, Zhao Ping, denied that the project office was involved in inciting Li and others to attack the workers. But he admitted the office was responsible for “improper management” of the construction project.

Delayed salary and labor abuse have been frequent occurrences in construction sites of big infrastructure projects contracted by state-owned firms like China Railway Construction Corp.

There have been dozens of reports of beatings targeting migrant workers claiming unpaid salaries nationwide in the past few years. All the cases implicated the project contractors in hiring hatchet men to use violence with the aim of intimidating the workers to give up their salaries.

Zhao Yongqi, a labor union official with the No. 15 Bureau of the China Railway Construction Corp., said although the company did not have “direct liability” for the beating, it is planning to provide 180,000 yuan as a “one-off compensation payment” to Zhao Zhiming’s family.

A Yingde City government official, who declined to be named, said in the case of labor disputes involving big state-owed firms, local authorities often refrain from getting involved, as chief executives of these firms often have higher ranks than local officials.

Very often, workers’ families are offered money to keep quiet.

By By Fang Ning, Liu Hongyu, Qiu Ming (Xinhua)

Published on 20 March 2014

Rights Group: Thai Fishing Sector Abuses Migrants, ABC News

An environmental and human rights group has charged that Thailand is not adequately addressing severe abuse against Myanmar migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry.

The British-based Environmental Justice Foundation said in a report Tuesday that the Thai government has failed to act strongly against human trafficking and that violence is routine in the industry.

“Endemic corruption, poor enforcement, inadequate victim support, unacceptable working conditions and deficient migration policy,” have not been tackled by Thai authorities, the group said.

Thai Labor Ministry Deputy Permanent Secretary Boontharik Samiti said the government was making a serious effort to protect workers in the fishing industry.

“Right now, we are aiming to reduce and eradicate human trafficking. For fisheries, all agencies have collectively come together in an effort to prevent this problem in a sustainable and long-term fashion,” she told The Associated Press by phone from Songkhla, a southern seaboard province.

The foundation suggested the United States consider imposing economic sanctions on Thailand, the world’s third-biggest seafood exporter after China and Norway.

Thailand’s fishing industry is staffed predominantly by migrants from much poorer neighboring countries, including Cambodia and especially Myanmar. Often the workers have come to Thailand illegally with the help of human traffickers, leaving them little legal protection and large debts to be paid out of their wages. Very few have any sort of contract.

“Depending on the amount paid, a trafficked fisherman could often work from one to eight months before earning any wages for himself,” noted a 2011 report by the International Organization for Migration, adding that some may work without pay for years on boats that are serviced by supply ships and rarely return to port.

“Migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry, many of them trafficked illegally, are suffering terrible abuses and all too often are denied their basic human rights,” Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said in a statement.

“These people are Thailand’s ‘seafood slaves’ forced to work to prop up the cash-rich fisheries industry,” Trent said, urging governments and the industry to act to stop abuse.

Trent said unsound environmental practices worsen the problem; overfishing has led to declining catches, so operators use the cheapest labor and keep workers at sea longer to make the catch.

The organization says its findings would justify the U.S. State Department downgrading Thailand to the lowest ranking in its annual human trafficking report, a step that would subject it to certain sanctions. Thailand has on a watch list for four years for planning reforms but failing to implement them. The U.S. report will be issued later this year.

According to the group, the value of seafood imported by the United States from Thailand exceeded $1.6 billion in 2013.

By Grant Peck, Associated Press

Published on 4 March 2014

Skilled workers in short supply, Global Times

Despite the fact that the supply of migrant workers exceeds the demand of the job market, skilled workers are still hard to find, said the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security on Thursday.

Yang Zhiming, deputy Minister of Human Resources and Social Security, told a State Council press conference that the growth rate of the number of migrant workers has slowed down.

The number of migrant workers in China was 269 million nationwide in 2013, up 2.4 percent on 2012. Migrant workers accounted for 81.8 percent of construction workers, 73.6 percent of the workers in the manufacturing industry, and 67.4 percent of workers in the service industry. The percentage of migrant workers in high-tech enterprises and the service industry has seen an increase in 2013, according to Yang.

Monthly income on average has also seen a rise from 2,290 yuan ($376.47) in 2012 to 2,609 yuan in 2013. Those working in East China are paid 10 percent more than those in central and western regions, said the Ministry.

“It is difficult to hire general workers, which reflects the limited supply of migrant workers. Despite China upgrading and restructuring its industrial base, there are difficulties in recruiting enough skilled technicians to work in these fields,” Yang said. Inadequate job-related skills hinder job-hunting and career development for migrant workers, he said.

In response, more government-sponsored training in practical skills will be offered to younger migrant workers. About 10 million workers will benefit from the training every year.

Businesses and industries with a larger percentage of migrants in their workforce will be encouraged to hire more staff with preferential policies on taxes and subsidies.

There will also be support, such as guarantee loans of 50,000 to 100,000 yuan, to each migrant worker who launches start-up businesses back in their hometowns. The number has exceeded two million, most of whom began their entrepreneurship in family farms, according to Yang.

“The new generation, born in the 80s and 90s, now account for more than 70 percent of all migrant workers. In comparison with their forebears, they show a stronger desire to integrate into urban life, but there are major obstacles, such as health insurance coverage and equal education for their children,” Yang said.

Wang Qian, a senior official with the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said at the conference that the medical record network would cover more than 50 percent of China’s provincial-level regions in order to ease access to medical services at different regions for the floating population.

The nation will also expect another 18 provinces and municipalities to allow children of migrant workers to sit the national college entrance examinations in 2014 at places where they do not hold household registrations. More than 4,400 students successfully sat the exam in 12 provinces and municipalities without household registration in 2013, said Du Kewei, a senior official from the Ministry of Education.

By Jiang Jie, Global Times

Published on 21 February 2014

Impoverished Cambodians for Sale, Inter Press Service

PHNOM PENH, Jan 24 2014 (IPS) – Many Cambodian women arrive in South Korea or China for marriage, only to find themselves being chosen as mistresses, say labour rights activists. While young Cambodian men, who travel to Thailand to work on fishing boats, often fall prey to drug abuse.

Loss of land, debt, poor pay and high prices of petrol and electricity are pushing youths from poverty-stricken Cambodia to foreign lands – sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Miserable working conditions in the garment sector have only worsened the labour trafficking scenario.

Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), said rural farmers comprise 80 percent of Cambodia’s population, but they are increasingly in debt due to high-interest loans. As a result, youth leave home in search of work.

He also cited the example of Cambodia’s garment industry, saying the prospect of being a garment worker is so terrible that often women will do anything to escape this fate.

“Women garment workers often choose to go to South Korea to escape the situation,” Tola told IPS.

CLEC has received several calls from families whose daughters were experiencing troubled “marriages” to Chinese and South Korean men that turned out to be sham marriages.

Tola said families accept money from marriage brokers without understanding the situation. The truth emerges when the women arrive in South Korea, only to be lined up in a room for the “husband” to choose from.

“I went to South Korea in 2011. It was explained to me that South Korean wives are not worried about sex workers because the husband takes a mistress. So he chooses a Cambodian girl to ‘marry’,” he said.

“In China, there is a shortage of women in the countryside. The man wants a wife to work for him without pay, so she becomes not only a labour slave but also a sex slave,” Tola said.

He concedes, however, that all international marriages are not shams.

A 24-year-old woman in Phnom Penh told IPS she knew of many successful relationships through marriage brokers. But she contacted IPS when a 30-year-old woman was being aggressively pursued by a marriage broker after she changed her mind about an offer. The broker backed off when CLEC was mentioned.

“A lot of Cambodian girls marry South Korean men. These are real relationships. Really poor people do this. Sometimes the girls come back and are able to build a house for the family and improve their lives.”

Young Cambodian men travel to Thailand to work in the construction sector, on fishing boats or in fish processing factories. This takes place either formally, using a broker for visas, or illegally.

“In case of illegal offers, the recruiter will call and say, ‘Do you want a job?’ The person will then cross the border at night, not using checkpoints, hiding in the back of a truck, lying head to toe with other people and covered with supplies that are being transported,” said Tola.

Brahm Press of the Raks Thai Foundation, an organisation that assists migrant workers, said most problems occur due to work contracts at the Cambodian end.

“As of July 2013, around 8,000 Cambodians were registered in Bangkok – 5,000 men and the rest women – and they were probably all in construction. I have heard that after deductions for recruitment agencies and housing, they come away with less than the 300 baht [10 dollars] a day minimum wage,” Press told IPS.

He said problems usually occur due to misunderstandings about work arrangements and fees or when passports are withheld to ensure that workers pay their recruitment debt.

Recently 13 young Cambodians – 11 men and two women aged between 15 and 23 – entered Thailand with the help of brokers to whom they paid 500 dollars each, said Si Ngoun, the father of one of the youths.

“They were promised a good job with a good salary of 300 baht per day.”

For two months they worked at a rubber band factory, a metal smith factory and, lastly, in the construction sector, which is where their troubles began.

“We were paid very little, about 120 baht [four dollars] per day. We didn’t want to work any more because we were too hungry,” 20-year-old Si Pesith, one of the workers, told IPS.

Tola said the workers asked for food and protested but the employer had them jailed as illegal workers. Usually detention lasts six to nine months, but Cambodian Ambassador You Ay intervened and they were sent home within a week.

IPS spoke with Pesith after he was repatriated. “If we compare work in Thailand with that in Cambodia, it is not much different,” he said.

Thai fishing boats have been flagged by the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report as potential labour trafficking scams for Cambodian migrants.

Press said conditions on fishing boats are notoriously difficult to monitor. Work there has been linked to drug use as labourers try to get through work shifts that can last up to 20 hours.

“When migrants, first Burmese and then Cambodians, were prominently replacing Thais on the boats, amphetamines were becoming the rage,” he said.

“First there was Ya-Ma (horse drug), which was milder than the current Ya-Ba, but no less addictive. During the last decade there were anecdotal reports, first of migrants on fishing boats voluntarily taking Ya-Ma, then stories of captains putting Ya-Ba in the drinking water.” Press, however, said such stories had become less frequent.

Eliot Albers, executive director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), said criminalisation of drug use makes it harder to assist users, especially migrants.

“Poverty and labour abuse worsen people’s relationship with drugs. They suffer from labour abuse and drugs help them get through the day,” Albers told IPS.

Migrant workers lack union representation, making them especially vulnerable to abuse. If they are formal workers, the process of migration is expensive (up to 700 dollars each), requiring a recruiter and debt. If they are informal, it is cheaper. But they risk detention and deportation by Thai police if they complain about the working conditions.

Despite these problems, repatriated workers often leave Cambodia again.

By Michelle Tolson, Inter Press Service

Published on 24 January 2o14

Forced to fish: Slavery on Thailand’s trawlers, BBC News

Thailand is the third largest exporter of seafood in the world, supplying supermarkets in Europe and America, but it’s accused of crewing fishing boats with Burmese and Cambodian men who’ve been sold and forced to work as slaves.

Military music is pumping out into the tropical sunshine. In front of us are some 100 police officers standing in rows, and two heavily armed SWAT teams standing at attention. General Chatchawal Suksomjit, deputy chief of police, is walking down the lines, shaking hands, nodding and saluting.

With his dark glasses, slicked-back hair and shiny grey uniform he oozes importance.

He ushers us on to some waiting police boats and out into the waters of the Malacca Straits, along the border with Malaysia.

The general is head of a new committee set up to deal with the trafficking of men into the fishing business – an industry he describes as “dirty, dangerous and difficult”.

Human rights groups claim the Thai fishing fleet is much worse than this. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who wrote a report on it for the International Organization for Migration says the use of forced labour is “systematic” and “pervasive”.

“The biggest problem we’ve seen is that if people can’t work, people aren’t useful on board, they can be killed and thrown overboard,” he says. “It doesn’t happen on every boat but it does happen enough to raise serious questions about the lawlessness in this industry.”

There is also a recruitment crisis. By the Ministry of Labour’s count, fishing boats in Thailand are short of 50,000 men. One captain at the port of Chonburi says they are desperate.

“Because Thai fishing is difficult, some people we have to force on to the boat,” he says.

Many boat owners and captains rely on brokers to recruit their workers, but the brokers are often unscrupulous, tricking young men from neighbouring countries into a job from which there is no escape.

As the police boats charge out towards the border with Malaysia, we approach four battered fishing boats. The SWAT teams surge on to the deck of the first boat, but meet no resistance.

“The focus of the mission today is to find trafficked and forced labour,” announces the general in Thai, before ordering the mainly Burmese crew down on to the deck. The crew have holes in their shirts or no shirts at all. Most are barefoot. We slide around on the nets, scales and fish guts on the deck.

When I talk in Burmese they speak quietly, glancing nervously at the captain and the crew master.

One group say they didn’t know they were coming on to a boat when they left Rakhine State in the west of Burma, or Myanmar as it is also known. They owe a broker $750 (£450) for bringing them here. One man glances out from under a mop of salt-soaked hair. “It’s been seven months,” he says. He still hasn’t been paid.

With my basic Burmese and the crew’s reluctance to talk, it’s hard to assess the situation but brokers, deception and debt often go hand-in-hand with forced labour.

Typically an illegal worker from Cambodia or Burma meets a broker and is offered a factory job. He accepts and finds himself passed from one broker to another, taken to a port and put on a fishing boat. The victim is then told he owes a lot of money.

It’s a well-sprung trap. If he escapes, then as an undocumented migrant the police will arrest and deport him. One Cambodian man I spoke to was trapped for three years on a boat without any wages, while he “paid off his debt”. He was never told how much he owed.

The general and his team cannot talk directly to the Burmese-speaking crew because they haven’t brought a translator so determining whether the men are trafficked is not possible. After 20 minutes the general ushers us off the boat.

“Wouldn’t it make your job easier to have a translator?” I ask. He replies that usually they rely on someone on board who can speak Burmese, such as the crew master. However, it’s often the crew master who is accused of the worst cases of abuse and violence.

“How do you know there was no forced labour or trafficking here?” I ask.

“From what we saw, there was no lock-up or detention room,” he says. “We saw no signs of harm on their bodies or in their facial expressions. By looking into their faces and their eyes they didn’t look like they had been forced to work.”

It didn’t seem like a foolproof system.

When the authorities do rescue trafficked men they often end up in a government-run detention centre on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Ken is one of these men. He explains that he was promised a good job in a factory but was forced on to a tiny boat in the open sea where he fished 20 hours a day, seven days a week. When he talks, his rough fingers run over the word L.O.V.E, which is clumsily tattooed across his knuckles. The broker said Ken owed a lot of money for being found a job and taken to the port. Months passed but Ken, like so many others, was never paid.

“People said, anyone who tried to escape had their legs broken, their hands broken or were even killed,” he says.

Desperate to escape, Ken jumped ship and swam for six hours in the open sea, until he was picked up by a yacht and dropped off in the resort of Pattaya. Like many trafficked men, he felt ashamed to return home empty-handed so when the police found him and deported him, he crossed the border illegally again to find work in Thailand.

This time he was told there was a job for him in a pineapple canning factory, and he agreed. But there was no factory, just another boat and another insurmountable debt. Fortunately for him, other crew-members managed to smuggle a phone on board to call for help and he was rescued as part of a special operation by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations.

Puntrik Smiti, the Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Labour, admits that men like Ken are vulnerable. “There are some good fishing operators who are trying to improve the treatment of workers,” she says. “The problem is there are small operators who are unregistered and don’t want to come into the system.”

Only one in six boats is registered, she says, and most of the workers are illegal. She also points out that existing labour laws are inadequate. In fact Thailand’s Labour Protection Act exempts workers employed in the fishing industry, while other ministerial regulations exclude boats with a crew of less than 20, or those that travel outside Thai waters for more than a year.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch says it is on these long-haul boats that the worst abuses take place.

“If you’re talking about a fish caught on a Thai boat that has gone overseas, that has gone to Malaysian waters, Indonesian waters or further afield, you’re definitely talking about a fish tainted with forced labour,” he says.

“If you’re talking about a fish caught in Thai waters, the chances might be less. But there are much fewer fish caught that way. And now the major exporting is coming from the overseas catch.”

The effect of local over-fishing is forcing Thai boats to go as far afield as Yemen to maintain an export business worth $7bn annually. Mother ships refuel boats far from shore and transfer crews, ice and fish at sea.

Trapped at sea, workers cannot escape or complain about their conditions. The system also muddies the supply chain because fish are mixed at sea, and often again at the ports and processing plants, before being sold to larger companies for export. Max Tunon of the International Labour Organisation, who published a report on the industry in September, says it is “close to impossible” to disentangle Thailand’s fish supply chains.

Consumer pressure may one day force the industry to make these supply chains more transparent. Mackerel, sardines and other Thai fish are bought by some Western supermarkets and restaurants, while household brands such as John West and Chicken of the Sea are both subsidiaries of the largest exporter of Thai seafood, the Thai Union Group.

For its part, the Thai Union Group says it only sources fish from boats that are properly registered, with crews that have proper working documents. A representative says the company works with its partners to “take meaningful steps to promote human rights” in all its business operations. Mackerel and sardines accounted for only 6% of its revenue in 2012. Tuna is caught by a different fleet of boats.

A few days later in Burma, we sit on the floor of a bamboo shack in Bago, 100km (60 miles) north of Rangoon. This is Ken’s home. Although idyllic, the poverty is palpable.

Ken’s parents haven’t heard anything from their son, who is now 32, for four years.

His father is thin, with a gaunt face and red teeth from chewing betel nut. His mother is plumper and has a comb holding up her grey hair.

I show them a video of Ken. “That’s him! That’s my son,” his mother cries in recognition.

She raises her hands to her face and weeps, while her husband places his hand close to hers.

“We didn’t know anything,” she says. “We heard nothing.”

“I am so happy, so happy,” Ken’s father says, unable to tear his red-rimmed eyes from the screen.

It’s hard to know just how many more families like Ken’s are waiting for sons and husbands trapped at sea. With some vessels spending months or even years away, without being checked, the system encourages abuse.

Ultimately, as one fishing boat captain told us, if the Burma or Cambodian economies boom and there are jobs for men back home, the Thai fishing fleet will be in trouble.

This could also force the industry to change its ways, quite aside from any consumer pressure. For now though, the flow of men trafficked into slavery on fishing boats continues.

By Becky Palmstrom, BBC News

Published on 23 January 2014

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