It was indeed a historic court ruling. But much still needs to be done to save ethnic migrant workers from slave-like working conditions in Thailand.
After a two-year-long trial, the Labour Court ruled last week that owners of the Praphasnavee fleet of deep-sea trawlers must pay for leaving their crew adrift in the open seas for over three months without food and fresh water. Out of over 100 crew members, 39 died at sea. Two of them were buried on an island. The bodies of 37 others were simply dumped in the ocean.
When the rest of the crew returned to Thai shores, they suffered from swollen bodies, severe fatigue, breathing problems and vomiting – symptoms of acute malnutrition. Most of them were ethnic Mon who had fled the harsh poverty and war atrocities wrought by the junta in Burma.
Initially, few believed they would have a chance against the rich and powerful trawler owners backed by corrupt officials. When the sick and the families of the dead demanded back wages and compensation, they were flatly ignored. The authorities refused to investigate the deaths at sea on grounds that Thai law did not apply in international waters. The police also refused to investigate the employers’ false registration of their migrant workers.
Without assistance from human and labour rights organisations, their misery would have been swept under the carpet. Although some believe the 4.9-million-baht compensation awarded to the 38 plaintiffs is too small, the message from the court is clear: workers, illegal or not, are entitled to minimum wages. And regardless of their workers’ legal status, the employers must be held accountable for their mistreatment.
With the employers filing an appeal, the workers still do not know when the costly and time-consuming legal process will end, which is why some of their peers cut the matter short through an out-of-court settlement.
Too bad that we cannot expect this heartening verdict to lead to less labour abuse in the future. The Praphasnavee scandal was not the first legal victory for migrant workers. A few years ago, the court also ruled in favour of a group of migrant workers who were used as slave labour at a Mae Sot sweat shop.Like the Prahpasnavee crew, they were treated like criminals, having to live in hiding during the court case. Abused or not, the law says all migrant workers whose jobs are terminated must be immediately deported. This law has robbed workers of their right to seek legal and financial redress from labour exploitation, while allowing abusive employers to get away with murder.
It is not only inhumane laws that are at play here. Migrant workers in Ranong, Phuket, Phangnga and Surat Thani are barred from using mobile phones and motorcycles. Group gatherings are prohibited, meaning workers cannot organise cultural or religious ceremonies – a blatant violation of their rights.
Undeniably these rules and laws stem from Thai society’s deep distrust of Burma, which is the result of our ultra-nationalistic history which portrays Burma as evil. This distrust is so strong that it has spilled over to affect ethnic minorities from that country. Ethnic people who fled harsh poverty and persecution in Burma are viewed here as a threat to national security and as potential criminals, rather than as victims of oppression by the Burmese junta and of exploitation by Thai investors.
As long as this discrimination remains intact, we will see no end to the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in Thailand.
Editorial Bangkok Post October3, 2008