UPDATE: Walmart is no longer doing business with this supplier, and the workers were given their passports back. However, Walmart still has no system for preventing situations like this in its supply chain.

Earlier this month, in a factory in Thailand that processes shrimp for a major supplier to Walmart there was a revolt.2,000 guest workers from Cambodia and Myanmar angrily protested the seizure of their passports by factory owners in Thailand. Police were called. Shots were fired.

But it wasn’t just the passport seizure that incited the workers’ anger — it was management slashing wages again. Their wages already didn’t cover the most basic needs, and this action put workers deeper into the factory’s debt — it’s called debt bondage. At this moment, many of them are still legally and financially trapped at the factory, victims of human trafficking.

Sign our petition to Walmart’s VP of Ethical Sourcing Rajan Kamalanathan to demand these factory owners end human trafficking immediately and allow independent monitors to audit all of their factories.

This is not an isolated incident. Also in Thailand, a pineapple factory had similar protests over wage reductions. There are now reports of human trafficking and that children under 15 have been bought and sold to work there. More than 73% of this factory’s shipments to the USA go to Walmart.

Walmart’s own internal system claims to protect against these abuses, some of which the Bangkok Post Editorial staff have described as “the equivalent of actual slavery”. But these two cases highlight a chronic problem — human trafficking, identity document seizure, child labor, forced unpaid overtime, and debt-bondage are found across Walmart’s supply chain.

Walmart’s internal system that audits factories to prevent these kind of abuses is broken at its core.

We only know about these abuses abuses because the workers’ revolt spilled out onto the streets. The problem is almost certainly far worse — and extends beyond the borders of Thailand. But we don’t know for sure and neither does Walmart.

We know that Walmart’s internal auditors schedule visits to factories — a deeply flawed practice that allows owners to coach workers and hide the most egregious abuses as is evident today. On the other hand, independent monitors show up unannounced, don’t aim to please factory owners, and provide a real check against some of the worst abuses — that is why they are so desperately needed.

Walmart customers around the world may be buying shrimp, pineapple, and who knows what else and unwittingly supporting near-slavery, debt bondage and child labor. We as consumers shouldn’t have to worry about supporting those kinds of horrendous abuses.

Walmart is already feeling the heat after a New York Times investigation exposed a top-level cover up of a bribery scandal in the company’s Mexican subsidiary. With mainstream media drawing attention to Walmart’s broken internal auditing, it is desperately trying to regain public trust. If we press this issue now, while Walmart and the media are listening, we can help bring an end to these practices and can protect some of the most vulnerable workers around the world.

That’s why we set up a petition to Walmart’s VP of Ethical Sourcing, calling for him to demand these factory owners end human trafficking immediately and allow independent monitors to audit all of their factories. Will you add your name?


Background Information:

How big are these factories and exactly how do they relate to Walmart?
There are two factories referenced in the email, both in Thailand, but in different provinces and owned by different companies.

Phatthana Seafood owns the shrimp processing factory. It is a key exporter to the US, Europe and Australia. It is part of the Rubicon Group, one of the largest suppliers of Seafood to Walmart. The factory employs 2,000 workers — 1,500 from Cambodia and 500 from Myanmar.

Vita Food Factory owns the pineapple canning factory and it employs 5,000 workers. Between 2,000 to 3,000 are from neighboring Myanmar, but Thai labor authorities say that 700 of them are undocumented. The majority of their reported exports to the US were sold directly to Walmart under the “Great Value” brand.

Why were there foreign workers in Thailand?
Impoverished workers from neighboring countries are sought out by factories in Thailand because they are cheaper than Thai workers. Brokers are contracted by factories to find and bring these foreign workers or guest workers across the border to factories.

What is debt-bondage?
Agreements between brokers and workers vary dramatically, but workers often pay months of wages in advance for the opportunity to work in Thailand. In some cases, workers benefit from these arrangements. But when factory owners don’t hold up their end of the deal, it can lead to terrible abuses. Workers arrive in debt, so paying workers less than promised and charging them more for meals and housing than they are being paid puts them into an unending debt spiral — this is debt bondage.

CDM Manpower Trading is the broker that is responsible for placing many of the workers at Phatthana Seafood. Workers claim the company lied about the job and broke numerous promises about pay, working conditions, and more.

Why do factories seize passports?
When foreign worker’s identity documents are seized they are nearly powerless to leave. This powerlessness is compounded by the huge cost of getting home.

How many victims of human trafficking are there?
We don’t know for certain, because factory owners work very hard to hide these numbers. At Phatthana Seafood, about 2000 workers were being held in debt-bondage before they protested. We believe around 100 undocumented workers remain there. At Vita Food Company, we believe that number is closer to 700.

Why did they strike?
The minimum wage increased in Thailand from 176 baht ($5.70) per day to 246 baht ($7.97). The plant responded to this increase by reportedly eliminating the 20 baht ($0.65) daily food allowance and decreasing their attendance bonus from 400 baht ($12.96) every two weeks to 300 baht ($9.72) per month. The workers had already had their identity documents seized and were receiving only half of the pay they were promised when the new cuts were announced.


Additional Reading:

Bangkok Post Editorial, End This Abuse by Companies, 24 April 2012
ABC Melbourne, Exploitation Claims Hit Thai Seafood Exporter, 11 April 2012