BORDERLESS INVESTIGATION: Been to the supermarket lately? You may have bought products from a worker in forced labor

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May 15, 2014

By Matt Rusling

Kanchanaburi, Thailand – “Aye” sat cross-legged on a concrete floor and described the violence she has witnessed since she started working at the fruit processing plant.

“There are cases where people end up in hospitals – I’m talking broken legs, hands and fractured ribs,” she said, requesting that Borderless not use her real name out of fear of reprisals.

“These abuses are always happening but committed secretly. It has been like that for a long time. Someone who dares inform about it can disappear,” she said.

A six-month Borderless investigation shows that forced labor, brutal beatings and threats of violence are regularly carried out against workers by labor recruiters, or “brokers,” contracted by Aye’s employer, Thailand-based Vita Foods.

The factory is directly linked to the U.S. market, and has shipped millions of pounds of its products to U.S. distributors nationwide over the last several years, with Del Monte Corporation regularly taking shipments from Vita since 2006, Borderless found.

Vita has drawn the attention of the United Nations and New York-based Human Rights Watch, both organizations expressing concern over reports of alleged abuse from brokers contracted by Vita.

Brokers recruit and transport new workers hundreds of miles to Vita, footing most or all of the bill for the trip. But they expect to be repaid, and workers who failed to do so have been beaten with metal pipes and pounded into unconsciousness by multiple assailants. Brokers have also locked workers in their rooms (after work) to prevent them from fleeing, workers and local activists told Borderless.

“I saw many people who failed to pay back and were hit. I dare not speak for them. If I do so, I too might be hit,” “Maung Maung,” a worker who spoke anonymously, told Borderless.

Aye said, ”(Brokers) keep the workers under their control…workers who could not pay back the debt were abused. Those who, for health reasons, could not work and fail to pay back were abused and beaten.”

Shipping records obtained by Borderless via database Import Genius showed Del Monte Corporation received around 3 million pounds of canned “Del Monte Tropical Fruit Salad” from Vita’s factory from March 2013 to March 2014, in more than 60 shipments.

Shipments exceeded 4.7 million pounds and totaled around 100 deliveries between March 2012 and March 2014, and the relationship between the two companies went back at least to 2006, according to records obtained from Import Genius.

The supplies can be found at U.S. supermarkets nationwide – records show the last shipment arrived in the U.S. March 15 – as canned goods can remain on store shelves for up to 90 days after arrival, according to a supermarket industry trade group. Del Monte’s canned products are good for two or three years after production, according to the company’s website.

In a transaction completed in February, the former Del Monte Corporation sold its consumer products business, which includes canned foods and the Del Monte brand, to Philippines-based Del Monte Pacific Limited (DMPL). The former Del Monte Corporation re-launched as a new firm with a new name and is now focused solely on pet foods, according to a press release. Del Monte Corporation no longer exists as a legal entity.

A spokeswoman for DMPL, the Philippines-based company, told Borderless in an email that Vita was discontinued as a supplier in January, although shipments arrived in the U.S. after that month because it can take up to 12 weeks to ship products from Thailand to the U.S.

The spokeswoman said Vita was discontinued as a supplier because DMPL is “bringing production in house.”

“Del Monte Pacific Ltd, as the new owners of Del Monte Foods Inc. (deal closed on 18 February 2014), has discontinued Vita Foods as a supplier,” the spokeswoman told Borderless in an email.

Overall, Vita shipped around 11 million pounds of products to multiple U.S.-based companies between April 2013 and April this year, with shipments going to various U.S. distributors, according to shipping records from Import Genius.

In a world where goods produced in any corner of the planet can end up in your neighborhood supermarket, Vita ships its products to markets in Europe, Canada, South America, the Middle East, Japan and Taiwan. Vita exports 5 million to 6 million cases of canned pineapple a year, ranking it among Thailand’s biggest food processors, according to the company’s website.

An atmosphere of fear of brokers

Speaking from a secret location off a bustling boulevard choked with motorbike traffic and lined with food stalls, Aye and her coworkers described an atmosphere of fear of brokers among Vita employees.

“What can we really do about it?” she said of abuse by brokers. “And before they send these people (victims of violence) to the hospital, they are made to promise that they will not give away the reason behind the injuries.”

Deeply tanned with jet black hair and a small but solid frame molded by tough physical labor, Aye spoke in a serious tone, looking intently at the interpreter as she spoke in her native Burmese.

Victims don’t come forward for fear of retaliation, as brokers keep a close eye on them, activists and workers said, but the group of a dozen workers in their 20s spoke late into the night, detailing myriad abuses they’ve seen and heard about.

Aye and her group were lucky enough to have paid off their debts to brokers quickly – and they keep their heads down to avoid problems with brokers, they said – but others are not so lucky.

Some Vita workers have taken longer than others to pay off debts, earning less than expected when work slows and hours are cut, prolonging the time brokers can mistreat them, workers said, adding that brokers beat up employees when they fall ill and cannot work.

Brokers have also used group punishment as a tactic.

“There is this one case where a friend of mine got beaten badly. He actually didn’t do anything. A worker, who was his roommate, ran away while he was sleeping and he was blamed for this and beaten very badly – he couldn’t even eat well for a week or so,” due to his injuries, Aye said, adding that she paid off the man’s debt, which then freed him to get a job elsewhere.

Some in the group said they have watched helplessly as brokers took out their seething rage on coworkers.

“Zaw” – not his real name – in his 20s wearing a white hoodie and sneakers, told of a beating he witnessed a few years back.

“Let me tell you a true story that happened back in 2010. There was this couple that cooks for the (broker’s) – or the boss’, as we call him – house. One of their responsibilities is to look after 20 of the boss’s other workers. One day, some of these workers ran away and the couple was blamed for their negligence – they were scolded and beaten several times by the boss’ henchmen,” he said.

While not every one of Vita’s workers has experienced violence, an NGO and activists said violence is used by brokers to instill fear in workers.

“Brokers…use violence for punishment and to wage fear among workers,” Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Helsinki-based NGO Finnwatch, told Borderless in an email.

“The threat of violence is brokers’ way of using control over them. As violence is not acceptable as a disciplinary measure under any circumstances, it is a very strong indicator of forced labor,” she said.

Finnwatch in January released a report that found multiple abuses by brokers contracted by Vita, saying they are “known for threatening and beating workers” and that “violence and the threat of violence is a way of suppressing possible worker protests.”

Maung Maung said, “I work hard and try not to fail (to make) the payments, so I don’t get hit. If one pays back regularly there’s no problem,” he said, but added that those who fall behind in their payments face violence.

Workers told Borderless that brokers have confiscated the passports of around a thousand employees, a practice that activists said was a bid to keep workers from fleeing before they repay their debts.

Burmese migrant workers comprise a large portion of Vita’s labor force, and like millions of other Burmese, the workers Borderless interviewed crossed the border into Southeast Asia’s no. 2 economy to make a better life for themselves and their families. Aye, in her 20s, has a son back home in Myanmar, cared for by his grandparents. Other workers send money home to relatives or aging parents.

Many in Thailand’s two to three-million strong Burmese migrant community speak little or no Thai, are far from their families and often unaware of their rights. Used to a tough life of few opportunities back home, Burmese migrant workers have told Borderless in this and other investigations they believe they have no choice but to slog through and hope someday they can make a better life for themselves.


Brokers contracted by Vita draw concern from UN, NGOs

Vita in 2012 grabbed the attention of the United Nations, as three United Nations special rapporteurs repeated allegations that had come to their attention regarding reports of abuse by brokers contracted by Vita in a letter to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.

“Migrants are often forced to work under debt bondage conditions- as they owe their brokers fees for finding employment and for a variety of expenses, such as costs of transportation to Thailand,” the letter read, noting that the special rapporteurs had not made “a determination on the accuracy of these allegations.”

“They are paid low wages and are unable to leave their work as a result of their debts. Deceptive and unfair payment practices, including non-payment of full wages and withholding part of their wages are reportedly common features,” the letter read.

In a 2012 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch noted that the poor labor conditions at Vita had triggered a strike at the plant, where there were also “underlying issues” of “trafficking and debt bondage.”

Workers told Borderless it was the brokers, not factory management, who abused them. It was not clear whether Vita was aware of brokers’ alleged abuses, as Vita did not respond to repeated emailed requests for comment. The full extent of the relationship between brokers and Vita remains unknown to Borderless, beyond what workers and Finnwatch reported, as Vita has not responded to repeated requests for information. Borderless was unable to access any of the brokers.

A global labyrinth of supply chains

Dressed in American-style jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, the group of around a dozen Vita workers embodied a world that is growing smaller, as goods flow back and forth across oceans, and countries are increasingly intertwined via intricate supply networks.

In Thailand-based factories other than Vita, workers told Borderless that “foreigners” – most likely buyers or compliance auditors – had visited their workplaces to inspect facilities, and that management had covered up a number of irregularities on inspection days.

Those included forced labor conditions, a problem not only in Thailand but one impacting nearly 21 million people worldwide who are trapped in jobs into which they were coerced and cannot leave, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for more than half of that number, according to a 2012 International Labor Organization report.

Abby Mills, campaigns director at the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum, said her organization does not advocate that Western companies simply cut ties with suppliers when labor abuses are uncovered, as that leaves rights violations unaddressed and leaves workers either unemployed or dealing with the same problems. Rather, the organization cooperates with workers’ organizations to hold companies accountable and improve compliance with labor laws and international labor standards.

In general, company audits by overseas buyers are plagued by methodological flaws and conflicts of interest. Inspection dates are often announced in advance, allowing supplier management to hide violations, she said.

An independent auditing group told Borderless on condition of anonymity it is often difficult to know what is happening behind the walls of an overseas supplier. Some buyers or compliance people have no choice but to schedule visits to suppliers in advance, in order to make sure all the necessary contacts – accountants and floor managers, for example – are present on the day of inspection.

*** This investigation was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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