I write to add my voice to the growing calls from national unions, global union federations, the ILO, and other organizations concerned with business and human rights regarding the ongoing denial of migrant workers’ fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The explicit discrimination written into the Labor Relations Act has fostered a system of structural inequality that has kept migrant workers captive and exploited throughout enormously profitable labor sectors, including in the seafood industry. This places millions of migrants in jobs that fall short of minimum international labor standards. Severe exploitation of migrant workers in the seafood and other industries in Thailand continues despite three decades of legal reform.
The right to organize for migrant workers is particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic. At this time, it is crucial for workers to have a legal organization and legitimate representatives with whom to communicate their concerns and problems to both their employer and government authorities. Employers and the government, too, need a clear channel to communicate with workers and their representatives regarding government directives and laws, health and safety precautions in the workplace, as well as changes to government service provision and employment arrangements and benefits, among other critical information.
Local and international organizations have repeatedly called for the Thai government to undertake legal reform and meet its obligations to respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of all workers in the Thai economy:
- At least 14 official complaints have been made to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association since the 1980s regarding Thailand’s violations of freedom of association.
- The ILO has made clear that denying these rights to non-Thais – the vast majority of seafood and fishing workers – based on race or country of origin is a violation of core labor standards.
- The Thai labor movement and migrant worker organizations have repeatedly called on the Thai government to ratify ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and reform national legislation accordingly.
- The U.S. Trade Representative has been closely monitoring Thailand’s progress since 2013 based on several petitions submitted by the AFL-CIO concerning the labor rights violations and, in 2015, Thailand was warned of its failure to meet the eligibility criteria with respect to freedom of association, collective bargaining, acceptable conditions of work, and forced labor.
- On October 25, 2019, the U.S. Trade Representative announced that it would suspend $1.3 billion USD in trade preferences for Thailand under the GSP program based on its “failure to adequately provide internationally-recognized worker rights [...] such as protections for freedom of association and collective bargaining.” Failing to make any progress during the six-month window allotted, the trade benefits were revoked on April 25, 2020 for more than 500 products from Thailand, including all seafood products currently covered under the program.
- Together with the help of national and global union federations, migrant workers have organized and formed democratic, representative organizations, including electing leaders and writing their own constitutions and bylaws. These organizations should be recognized, legally registered as trade unions, and given a legal basis to engage with employers and with the government in the policy sphere to address and end forced labor.
The Thai Government must act urgently to: (1) reform Articles 88 and 101 of the Labor Relations Act (1975) to remove discrimination against foreign migrant workers and allow them the right to form their own unions and be eligible for election or appointment as a member of a union committee or sub-committee; and (2) publicly commit to ratifying ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and bring national laws in compliance with these internationally recognized, minimum labor standards.
H.E. Mr. Don Pramudwinai, Minister of Foreign Affairs
H.E. Mr. Chuti Krairiksh, Minister of Social Development and Human Security
H.E. Mr. Chatumongol Sonakul, Minister of Labour
H.E. Mr. Jurin Laksanawisit, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce
H.E. Mr. Chalermchai Sreeon, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives
H.E. Mr. Thani Thongphakdi, Ambassador of Thailand to the United States of America