The Thai broiler industry has come under heavy criticism from two business relations and corporate responsibility organizations, which allege that Thai poultry companies exporting to Europe use “at worst forced labor.”

The two nonprofit bodies, Finnwatch and Swedwatch, are calling for government action after identifying issues ranging from illegal worker salary deductions to paying for use of safety equipment. The claims come after investigations at six plants owned by four companies.

Their report’s findings, if true, raise several issues.

Should European importers, or any others, be working with Thai businesses that practice alleged worker abuse, and would consumers continue to buy their processed poultry products if they knew how they were made?

Leaving ethical issues aside, the allegations raise questions about whether it is by using such labor practices that these companies achieve a competitive position in international markets, and whether competition between them and rivals is fair.

Finnwatch and Swedwatch investigated six Thai factories, and spoke to migrant workers. At one company, they say, recruitment agencies made arbitrary deductions from workers’ salaries, while at another, work permits and visas were forged. At another, workers were charged fees to use protective equipment. Personal documentation is also alleged to have been confiscated.

Workers reported very similar problems at all factories covered by the investigation.

Shared responsibility

But it is not simply Thai companies that come in for criticism. European meat importers' monitoring of working conditions in their supply chain has failed, says Sonja Vartiala, Finnwatch’s executive director.

Many importers expect broiler meat suppliers to respect labor rights, but requirements are vague and monitoring “unconvincing.”

The situation in Thailand is yet another example of the need to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence for companies, Vartiala argues, and workers’ rights should be taken into account alongside food safety and quality considerations.

Europe has been a major export destination for Thai poultry for several years, and should these worker abuse allegations be true, there could be serious implications. While the report’s authors are calling for more than simply consumer action, a consumer boycott of Thai chicken meat could be hugely damaging for exporters and importers alike.

CP Foods was among the companies investigated. Despite being the least criticized, the company has nevertheless sought to address allegations, and to put its side of the story.

It notes that most of the comments made about it in the report were positive, but has sought to clarify a number of points.

Where recruitment is concerned, the company has only been able to use officially designated agencies in workers’ country of origin, but has recently adopted a new foreign labor policy where recruitment is direct, with no fees paid by employees. This policy is still being rolled out and will need assessment, CP says.

The company denies making unlawful deductions from workers’ salaries, or treating foreign workers more harshly than other workers, but has committed to investigate any allegations of breaches of its diversity and inclusion policies and to remedy any problems found.

Action and transparency

Swedwatch is recommending that Thai companies ensure that all unlawful recruitment fees are stopped and that brokers do not charge migrant workers costs leading to debt bondage. As a minimum, all companies should comply with local labor legislation. Importers should ensure that suppliers follow international labor rights standards, and importers and wholesalers must carry out due diligence on human rights and be transparent.

The Thai broiler sector is not alone in having accusations of treating workers badly levied against it – sportswear and technology companies have faced similar allegations, particularly regarding their Asian operations.

But this is not an Asian problem. Now that these allegations have been made public, it should not only be the broiler processors themselves that are scrutinized but also those that work with them, wherever they may be, and measures put in place to ensure that any wrongdoing that is proved is remedied as quickly as possible.