It is 7.30 in the evening and an excited chatter fills the room as 11-year-old Nampeung and her friends get their work checked before clearing their desks and heading home.
But this is no scene from the end of a school day. Nampeung is an ethnic Mon girl from military-ruled Myanmar who has been working in a seafood factory in central Thailand for nearly three years.
The desks are the metal tables where she spends six days a week shelling shrimps and her work is measured by the kilogram. Of the 200 people working in the barn-like factory during an unannounced visit by Reuters, nearly half appeared to be in their early teens or younger -- clear evidence of child labor in an industry worth $2 billion a year in exports.
Half Thailand's exported shrimps go to the United States, where they end up on the shelves of retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Costco, according to Poj Aramwattananont, president of the Thai Frozen Foods Association.
Japan and Europe each account for another 20 percent. Even though she can only dream of going to school, Nampeung is one of the lucky ones. She makes up to 300 baht ($9) a day -- more than the province's minimum wage -- and sees nothing wrong with children her age working.
"The old people are so slow," she said with a broad smile, sitting demurely on the floor of the concrete hut next to the factory, which she shares with her mother, father and three siblings.
Other factories in the coastal province of Samut Sakhon, 50 km (30 miles) west of Bangkok, where 40 percent of all Thailand's shrimps are processed, do not have such a contented workforce.
A police raid on a factory called Ranya Paew in September revealed conditions that were little short of mediaeval. Around 800 men, women and children from deeply impoverished Myanmar -- or Burma, as it used to be known -- were imprisoned in a compound behind 15 foot (4.5 meter) walls topped with razor wire and patrolled by armed guards.
The rescued workers told human rights monitors they had to work 18 hours or more a day and were paid 400 baht a month, out of which they had to buy food -- mainly rancid pork -- from the factory's owner. Those who asked for a break had a metal rod shoved up their nostrils. Three women who asked to leave were paraded in front of the other workers, stripped naked and had their heads shaved.
One shipment from Ranya Paew a few years ago had ended up in the United States, according to a Western diplomat who has followed the case closely. The Labor Rights Promotion Network (LPN), a non-governmental organization that estimates there are 200,000 Myanmar migrant workers in Samut Sakhon -- of whom only 70,000 are registered legally -- says the Ranya Paew case is the worst it has seen.
But it is also, LPN says, just the tip of a human trafficking iceberg of factories fed by cross-border people-smuggling rings and labor brokers that enjoy the complicity, if not active involvement, of provincial police and government officials. "For many migrants, work in Samut Sakhon is the chance for a better life, but for too many it leads to abuse," LPN president Sompong Srakaew said.
"Unscrupulous employers and brokers conspire to ensure migrant workers remain vulnerable to exploitation. This is only possible with the complicity of elements within the law enforcement authorities," he said.
Wal-Mart and Costco said none of their shrimp had ever come from Ranya Paew and that strict ethical guidelines for suppliers, as well as audits of processing units in Thailand, ensured they complied with food standards and labor regulations.
Thai Frozen Foods Association chief Poj Aramwattananont also denied children or trafficked people worked in the industry, saying factories were monitored carefully. "There are no more illegal workers in the Thai food industry because the government registers all the workers properly. We never use child labor," he told Reuters.
However, even Thailand's biggest agroindustrial firm, Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF), which produces its own shrimp from pond to packet to ensure a higher degree of transparency, is not untouched by allegations of trafficked labor.
CPF sells a range of shrimp dishes to the U.S. and Europe, including the "Thai torpedo" and "Bangkok firecracker." According to LPN, when police and immigration officials raided a CPF factory in Samut Sakhon on April 5 and fired shots into the air, more than 100 Myanmar migrants in the compound tried to escape by swimming a canal.
Six workers who could not swim are thought to have drowned, LPN said, and police rounded up and deported 90 others back to Myanmar for being illegal migrants. Narong Kruakrai, general manager of the CPF plant, described the raid as a "regular visit" by immigration police, and said his factory never hired illegal workers. LPN said the workers appeared to have been "employed" by a third-party broker.
With smaller shrimp companies, overseas buyers have an even harder time conducting their own background checks as much of the processing is outsourced to small operators.
As a result, foreign firms rely more on the Thai Labor Ministry, which is responsible for ensuring factories do not use illegal or child workers. However the ministry is short on staff, as well as enthusiasm, the Western diplomat said.
"The Thai Ministry of Labor lacks the proper resources to conduct rigorous inspections of these factories," he said. Despite the discovery of abuses at Ranya Paew -- around 200 Myanmar men were deported as illegal immigrants and more than 60 women and children are in a trafficking victims center in Bangkok -- Samut Sakhon police have allowed the plant to remain open.
Citation: "Child laborers toil in Thai seafood factories." CNN. 24 April 2007.
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