BANGKOK — A group of Myanmar migrants filed a lawsuit Friday against a major Thai food exporter over allegations of forced labour on a chicken farm, as accusations of abuse dog the kingdom’s multi-billion-dollar poultry industry.
Thailand’s seafood sector has gained global notoriety for using trafficked labour and subjecting boat crews to slave-like conditions.
But the poultry industry, which exports around a third of its broiler meat to Europe, has largely evaded scrutiny.
Fourteen migrant workers are now demanding $1.3 million in compensation for being overworked and underpaid on a Thai chicken farm, said Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), a group that helped them launch the case.
The labourers said they were forced to work gruelling 20 hour days that included sleeping in chicken rearing areas on the Lopburi farm that supplied meat to Betagro — a Thai food conglomerate with clients around the globe.
Their suit, filed at a labour court in Saiburi province, demands compensation from Betagro, the supplier farm — Thammakaset Farm 2 — and Thai officials, said Andy Hall of MWRN.
In a statement Friday Betagro stressed it “complied with standard labour rules” and “treats workers of all races well and with equality”.
“We have never ignored the issue, but since it was raised we took this as an opportunity to lift our labour management standards,” the firm added.
The food giant cut ties with the supplier farm after the workers’ allegations first surfaced in June.
But Hall said the company has since refused to provide adequate assistance to the workers.
“We need to push this case to hold Betagro responsible for what’s happening in their supply chain,” he told AFP.
Thailand’s seafood sector — for years marred by gruesome stories of abuse — is far “more aware” of the labour issues in its factories and fleets, he added.
“The chicken industry has managed to avoid this attention… many companies are still not paying the minimum wage and the workers are essentially powerless,” Hall said.
The 14 workers also alleged unlawful salary deductions and said they were only permitted to leave the farm for two hours a week on a monitored market visit.
The isolation of Thailand’s chicken farms has helped shield the sector from scrutiny, according to rights groups.
Thailand has a long history of grubby exploitation of its millions of migrant workers.
Much of the workforce remains undocumented, despite recent government efforts to register all migrant labourers.
That leaves many migrants vulnerable to abusive employers and traffickers.