In an icy cold room in the fishing port of Samut Sakhon, a labour inspector reads over the payroll ledger of a small shrimp peeling shed. Most of the workers are from Myanmar and some of them appear to be very young. They are hesitant to discuss their situation with the inspectors, especially as their employer looks on. The ledger reveals discrepancies in the number of hours worked and payment of the daily minimum wage of 300THB (about US$ 9.15).
I’m here as part of a five-day training course for labour inspectors from the coastal provinces of Thailand.
Strengthening labour inspection capacities with a special focus on vulnerable workers, especially migrant workers, has been identified as a key priority by the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare in the Ministry of Labour and the ILO.
Exploitative labour conditions, including incidents of forced labour and human trafficking, have been well documented in the media this year. A 2013 ILO study on employment practices and working conditions in the Thai fishing industry found 17 per cent of respondents were working against their will. A shortage of Thai workers means that commercial fishers are predominately migrants – approximately 9 out of 10 are from Myanmar or Cambodia.
These are some of the many complex intersecting issues that labour inspectors encounter when they conduct inspections in Thailand.
In another coastal province of Thailand, Trang, I joined the team as they conducted inspections of fishing vessels as they pulled into dock. Four boats docked within one hour – the team has a limited time on board and must be very efficient. As we boarded, my first impression was of how cramped and humid the working conditions are; and also that there appeared to be an almost complete lack of clean drinking water available to the workers. My second reaction was physical: terrible motion sickness!
Once I gained my sea-legs, I had the chance to talk to some of the workers. They seemed hesitant to interact with authorities and nervous about giving out information with their employer present.
I was thoroughly impressed with the bravery and strength of the female labour inspectors. They are operating in a male-dominated workplace and in sometimes dangerous conditions, while maintaining a high degree of competency and dedication to their role.
It is extremely difficult for the authorities to build trust with the workers in such a short space of time. The other main challenge is the language barrier. Though we were accompanied by NGO translators during this training session, this isn’t usually the case in regular inspections. So this is an area for improvement that we discussed during the de-briefing on the training.
A further challenge relates to the identification of the workers. Most of them are undocumented migrant workers. While this is not an issue that the labour inspection team addresses, it does pose a problem in verifying the age of the workers. With no ID cards, there is no way to determine whether the very young-looking workers have reached the required age of at least 16.A final point on my participation in the training: I was thoroughly impressed with the bravery and strength of the female labour inspectors, of which there are many on the team. They are operating in a male-dominated workplace and in sometimes dangerous conditions, while maintaining a high degree of competency and dedication to their role.
There is a recognition of the challenges to effective labour inspection by the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare, the Ministry of Labour, and other key stakeholders. However, these partners are also committed to finding solutions — capacity building like this is just one example. The ILO will continue to provide assistance in this area and help to show results in the country’s efforts to better protect migrant workers’ rights.