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Seafood Working Group Urges Thai Govt to Address Labor Abuses in Wake of U.S. GSP Program Suspension

In the wake of the U.S. government suspending billions of dollars in trade preferences for Thailand due to worker rights issues, organizations participating in the Seafood Working Group released a statement on Human Rights Day strongly urging the Thai government to undertake the necessary reforms to have the trade benefits reinstated. The 24 organizations also urged global companies buying seafood from Thailand to ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected in their supply chains.

On October 25, 2019, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced that it would suspend $1.3 billion in trade preferences for Thailand under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) due to Thailand’s failure to adequately provide internationally recognized worker rights, particularly lack of protection for freedom of association and collective bargaining. In 2015, the USTR warned Thailand of its failure to meet the eligibility criteria for the GSP program with respect to freedom of association, collective bargaining, acceptable conditions of work, and forced labor.

"The decision to revoke GSP benefits shows the Thai government that the international community intends to hold countries that repeatedly and consistently violate fundamental worker rights accountable,” said AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold. “Workers in Thailand on farms, in factories, and on the seas have a right to decent, safe work, and their abuse must end now,” said Feingold, who also serves as deputy president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Thai trade unions and worker rights organizations in Thailand have for decades been calling for legal reforms to guarantee all workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and to end egregious labor rights abuse. They have participated in multiple committees and consultations with the government on proposals for labor laws. They have submitted a variety of recommendations on labor law reform. Every step of the way they have been ignored or marginalized, or worse, harassed and persecuted.

“This statement is to send a clear message to the Thai government and companies that the Thai labor movement and migrant workers in the country have international solidarity and support not only from labor organizations, but also other types of organizations concerned with business and human rights involved in the Seafood Working Group,” said the International Labor Rights Forum’s Senior Seafood Campaign Coordinator, Kimberly Rogovin.

GSP program eligibility will be revoked for 573 products on April 25, 2020, including for all seafood products, according to a statement from the USTR: “due to longstanding worker rights issues in the seafood and shipping industries.” Members of the Seafood Working Group and other organizations have consistently documented labor abuse and forced labor of migrant workers in the seafood and fishing sectors, linking such exploitation to legal discrimination against migrant workers and denial of their fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

“The fundamental problem is Thailand’s labor laws don’t meet international standards and a lack of serious enforcement means companies easily get away with abuses. Law reforms are urgently needed to ensure workers can establish and lead their own unions, regardless of nationality, and to prevent retaliation and firings of union leaders for standing up for their rights,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.

A global coalition of human rights, labor rights, and environmental organizations, the Seafood Working Group is extremely concerned about widespread abuse and denial of workers’ fundamental rights across the whole economy, concerning Thai and migrant workers alike. Members are calling on the Thai government to reform labor legislation, end legal and judicial harassment of labor rights defenders and collaborate with worker organizations to end labor exploitation.

The statement also urges leading companies exporting and sourcing seafood from Thailand, particularly members of the Seafood Task Force, to call publicly on the Thai government to reform national legislation in line with international standards and ensure workers’ labor rights are respected in workplaces within their own supply chains. 

“Companies should assume their responsibility to ensure internationally recognized worker rights in their supply chains, and work with their suppliers in Thailand to eradicate abuses and enable the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Now is the time for Thai seafood companies and their buyers, such as global supermarkets, to walk the talk, act to end abusive practices, and show how it can be done systematically,” said Art Prapha, Oxfam America’s Senior Private Sector Advisor.

The Thai government was given six months, until April 25, 2020, to make changes to become eligible for trade privileges again in 2021. The group strongly urges the Thai government and all relevant companies to act quickly and support meaningful reforms that are long overdue.