Catching up with Thai Union: A look at the canned tuna processor’s worker welfare efforts

Published on
June 8, 2016

This spring, Thai Union hosted a two-day training workshop for a newly elected factory welfare committee – a collective comprised of representatives from a Thai Union operation in Mahachai, Samut Sakorn Province in Thailand.

Appointed in April 2016, the committee includes 11 migrant workers and eight Thai workers, chosen from a candidate pool of 63 employees. Led by the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) in collaboration with the Thai Union human resources core, the workshop helped attendees to explore work-related rules and regulations, labor laws and the roles and responsibilities of a welfare committee in the workplace. Additionally, the workshop delved into how to forge relationships between employees and employers that facilitate improved dialogue and lessen potential conflict. Moving forward, the committee will provide consultations and opinions about welfare issues that are beneficial to the company and its 12,297 Mahachai-area employees, said Thai Union.

“We are confident welfare committees will enhance labor rights protection in Thai Union facilities and increase opportunities to engage in social dialogue, providing a safe platform where our employees can raise any concerns they may have. The committee will also ensure that Thai Union is aware of any specific needs our employees may have, which could influence any future policy decisions we make,” Thai Union Group Director for Sustainabile Development Darian McBain said“To ensure the committee is an effective mechanism to improve communication between employees and Thai Union management, it is important to provide time for training and strategy planning.

In the works…

The formation of the worker welfare committee is the latest effort in an enterprise-wide initiative to provide Thai Union employees with “safe, legal and freely-chosen employment,” according to Whitney Small, Group Director of Corporate Communications for Thai Union.

The initiative comes on the heels of media reports detailing allegations of worker rights violations in the Thai fishing and seafood processing sectors, which contributed to the European Union issuing a yellow card in April 2015.

With the help of MWRN, the processor was able to map out its key export facilities in Thailand during the beginning of 2016, “highlight[ing] many positive practices of the company but also reveal[ing] a number of significant challenges remaining,” said Andy Hall, international affairs advisor to MWRN.

Among the recent changes undertaken by Thai Union include the elimination of recruitment fees for all workers in company factories and processing plants across Thailand, as well as the revision of the company’s Business and Ethics Labor Code of Conduct in September 2015.

“The code focuses on the recruitment and treatment of workers, stipulating protocols on employee welfare, benefits, wages, age, the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and non-negotiable frameworks for health and safety. Similar to the earlier 2013 Code of Conduct, this policy shows our commitment to the eradication of human rights violations in the supply chain,” Small told SeafoodSource.

She continued: “In addition to these activities, we have also undertaken a number of workers’ rights initiatives in conjunction with leading NGOs including MWRN, Project Issara and Labor Rights Promotion Network (LPN). This has involved formal training to educate workers on their basic rights, Thai labor law and social welfare regulations. In 2016, the program of engagement with MWRN expanded significantly and now includes a full workplace mapping and social audit project across all our key processing facilities. Key elements of the project include raising awareness amongst workers of their rights, encouraging more participation in welfare committees and enhancing social dialogue.”

As part of its approach to corporate social responsibility, Thai Union focuses on “CSR activities that benefit our employees, their families and the communities where we live and work,” said Small. This includes the Thai Union Child Care Centers put in place – two have been established so far, with a goal of five centers set for the end of 2020 – which “encourage Thai and migrant children in the vicinity to the Samut Sakhon community to attend school and get a solid education.”

Thai Union’s Sustainable Community and Society Co-Development Pilot Project in Chumphon Province also exists to encourage community cohesiveness and development, with locals participating in the planning and design of a sustainable community at the economic, local resource and lifestyle levels.

An invitation

As the biggest canned tuna manufacturer in the world, Thai Union feels a “responsibility to show leadership and to drive change across the industry,” said Small, adding that “it is part of our vision and mission.”

Being such a big player in the industry has made the company a target of activist groups like Greenpeace, which kicked off a campaign against the processor in October 2015 after media reports alleged that Thai Union was linked to human labor violations in its supply chain, according to the NGO.

Small said Thai Union hopes the NGO will consider working with the processor someday on a shared vision.

“Greenpeace targets Thai Union because it is the biggest can[ned] tuna manufacturer in the world, and that to effect change they must target the largest corporations…We are engaging with partners from the commercial, NGO and regulatory sectors in a dialogue and have always welcomed them to talk to us directly and join the discussion. We will continue to invite them to join with us in developing pragmatic, practical and science-based solutions in the spirit of seeking a consensus-driven outcome. While we respect [Greenpeace’s] right to advocate for change, we hope that at some stage they decide to take up our invitation and work together on a shared vision for the seafood sector that addresses both environmental and social concerns.”

Along with the company’s various worker welfare programs and projects at work, Thai Union has also embraced a new sustainability strategy in ‘Sea Change’. As part Sea Change’s trajectory, the company has been “developing a full digital chain of custody from hatch to catch to consumption, with a public-facing can-tracker for all of our major tuna brands,” said Small.

“An exciting opportunity that we see, working with our NGO and business partners, is bringing worker voice to sea using technological innovation that addresses both IUU and connectivity. We are also developing an innovative social capacity building program for the shrimp industry in Thailand and looking at social certification standards for seafood products,” Small concluded.

‘Sea Change’ was opened for international consultation in March 2016, as a means to draw upon external expertise and opinion. Find more information about ‘Sea Change’ here: http://www.thaiunion-sustainability.com/index.php

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