Thailand’s seafood industry has supplied the global market with about $7 billion dollars annually. Half of that is shrimp products destined for supermarkets in the US, Europe, and Japan.
The shrimp industry needs lots of manpower and has absorbed it from neighboring countries, including Cambodia, because Thai workers do not want to do the arduous work, according to a 2013 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Investigations by the Associated Press and the Guardian, as well as annual reports by the US State Department, have revealed the human rights abuses in the Thai shrimp industry.
A few years before the reports were published, Phan Sophea, who had just graduated from a high school in Battambang province, thought that working in Thailand was an opportunity to lift his family out of poverty.
Sophea left home for the first time in 2010 with several other migrant workers to work for Phatthana Seafood in Thailand’s southern Songkhla province.
“I decided to go because I could not find another job,” Sophea told VOA Khmer by phone. “I hoped working in Thailand would earn me enough money to help my family and at the time, my mother was also sick. Therefore, I quit school to go to Thailand.”
Arriving with Sophea were Sem Kosal and his wife, Sopeah Bun. All were from Battambang province. They were recruited by CDM, a recruitment agency, with promises of a $300 monthly salary.
“They told us that we would be paid from $220 up to $300, but when we got there it was not like what they said,” said Kosal. “They also promised us that our lodging would be equipped with mattresses, beds, and electricity, and it would be free. But they charged us for a place to sleep that was not even decent. It was simply on the concrete floor similar to a pigsty.”
“When it rained, the roof leaked,” recalled Sophea. “When we slept, insects came out everywhere. One day I woke up to see a millipede sleeping on my eyelid. I was terrified. I never had such a bad experience before.”
They had to work hard and sometimes were forced to work overtime against their will.
They returned home in 2012 with deteriorating health and high debts on a loan they took out to prepare travel documents before their departure for Thailand.
Seven victims including Sophea, Kosal, and Bun, filed a complaint to a US federal court in California in June against Phatthana Seafood and S.S. Frozen, which supplied shrimp products to U.S. distributors Wales & Co. Universe Ltd. and Rubicon Resources LLC.
The civil lawsuit accuses the US and Thai firms of knowingly profiting from the villagers’ working conditions and violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a US law aimed at preventing human trafficking.
The defense has argued that the case has already been amicably resolved.
“All disputes over pay, working conditions, accommodations, and other labor-related matters that arose during the time period that the plaintiffs worked in a facility of defendant Phatthana Seafood Co., Ltd. were completely resolved in 2012 with the cooperation and oversight of the Thai and Cambodian governments,” the companies’ lawyers wrote in a statement in December.
The statement added that any injury or damage alleged in the complaint was not caused by their clients.
Sorphea tells a different story. He recalls seeing representatives from Cambodian embassy coming to the protests, but there was no resolution.
“They tried to talk us into working there and ending the protest,” said Sophea. “But there was no solution. We still got paid 197 baht a day [about $5.50]. At the end of the month we had nothing left.”
An opposition lawmaker, Mu Sochua, deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that Cambodian officials’ ability to provide support is still limited, especially when it comes to an international conflict.
“The problem we face is the lack of legal services to help our workers,” she said. “Sometimes it’s merely a language issue to look for a lawyer and the competency of staff at our embassy is very limited to challenge Thai or international laws.”
Sochua supports the Cambodian workers in resorting to international mechanisms.
“I believe that this is wonderful and must be encouraged,” she said. “Frankly, the government should try their utmost to pay for the legal fees to at least set an example for our laborers who dare file a complaint when they fall victims of such an exploitation.”
Phatthana Seafood and S.S. Frozen admitted that six of the defendants were employed during the period, according to documents posted on the court website.
Wales & Co. Universe Ltd. and Rubicon Resources LLC., denied any knowledge or involvement in the case.
“It doesn’t matter if the defendants do not recognize me, I will still provide my answer accordingly,” said Sok Sang, the defendant whom the companies deny was their employee. “They forced us to work hard and didn’t pay us as the labor agreement says.”
Sang said he has fallen deeper into debt since returning from Thailand.
“I cannot earn much for a living since I went to Thailand last time,” he said. “I’m in debt for $4,000 or $5,000 dollars now.”