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Rare Thai labour win as tuna factory pays out US$1.3m
[BANGKOK] A Thai tuna processing factory has agreed to pay staff US$1.3 million compensation for a litany of labour abuses, officials said Tuesday, a rare victory for migrant workers in the kingdom's scandal-mired seafood industry.
Hundreds of Myanmar labourers at Golden Prize Tuna Canning, a processing plant in Samut Sakhon that sells fish to markets around the globe, have spent months seeking compensation for exploitative working conditions.
Thailand is the globe's third-largest seafood exporter, but the industry is plagued with rights abuses and fuelled by trafficked labour from neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia.
The sector has come under heightened scrutiny from foreign governments over the past year, with the European Union currently weighing an all-out ban on Thai fishing products.
The United States also recently passed a bill outlawing products made from forced labour that could see Thailand crippled with sanctions.
Rights groups say Golden Prize workers had long been subject to unlawfully low salaries and abuse from supervisors.
Following a 1,000-strong worker strike last week, company representatives joined negotiations with military officers, government officials and migrant worker leaders, reaching an agreement late Monday evening.
"The company began paying 1,100 workers last night involving money of 48 million baht (S$1.82m)," Boonlue Sartpetch, the head of the province's labour department, told AFP Tuesday.
He said 700 workers have been paid, with the rest expected to receive compensation Tuesday.
Golden Prize Tuna Canning, which employees nearly 2,000 workers, mostly from Myanmar, declined to comment.
The US's labour department currently lists Thai fish and shrimp as products the government has reason to believe are manufactured by slave labour.
Thailand's ruling military junta, which seized power in a 2014 coup and has struggled to revive a flagging economy, is desperate to avoid any damaging sanctions on the fishing sector.
Officials have touted new legal regulations and periodical crackdowns on traffickers and fishing factories as evidence of reform.
Andy Hall, a British labour activist who has been assisting the Myanmar workers at Golden Prize Tuna, said he suspected that the spectre of massive trade sanctions was finally forcing the Thai government to act.
"To get a dispute like this that involves so much money and actually have it settled is very unprecedented," he told AFP, adding that the tuna company and local labour department have dodged the worker's complaints for nearly a year.
In the past some Thai factories have responded to rights abuse allegations by filing defamation lawsuits, which Hall is currently facing for highlighting exploitation at a Thai fruit company.