15 December 2015

Woolies, Coles, Aldi caught up in child labour scandal

Female workers sort shrimp at a seafood market in Mahachai, Thailand.

Woolworths, Coles and Aldi are embroiled in a child labour scandal, with all three supermarket chains confirming they sell prawns or seafood supplied by a Thai company at the centre of the allegations.

Graphic evidence of forced labour, including child labour, has been uncovered at a prawn peeling factory owned by major seafood supplier Thai Union.

An investigation by Associated Press found hundreds of workers at the company's factories working under poor conditions with some workers, mainly from Myanmar, locked inside or otherwise unable to leave the factory.

Children were observed working the production line and witnesses told the news wire service they worked under the threat of violence.

The Thai Department of Fisheries shows Thai Union has several facilities approved to export seafood to Australia.

The child and forced labour was seen at the Gig Peeling Factory in Samut Sakhon, about an hour's drive from Bangkok.

Win Win Than, 25, says she tried to run away but was caught and handcuffed in a small room inside the shed.

The scandal could lead to a prawn shortage over summer with consumers expected to hunt out Australian farmed prawns and pressure retailers to withdraw the products from its shelves.

All three of Australia's major supermarket retailers are conducting investigations into their supply chain after confirming to Fairfax Media they use Thai Union as a supplier.

"Thai Union is one of our suppliers as they are to most large western retailers and brands. We will investigate this further with our supplier and seek advice from our NGO partners," a spokesman for Woolworths said.

Khine Zin Soe, 24, centre, worked in a shrimp shed when she was pregnant and the owner forced her to work peeling shrimp even when she miscarried. With her are her husband, Kyaw Kyaw Aung, and her son, Htet Wai Yan.

Coles confirmed its frozen prawns were sourced from Thai Union, but noted its fresh prawns sold from its deli section were Australian prawns.

"Coles takes a proactive approach to labour standard issues and works closely with our suppliers, key NGOs and stakeholder groups including the International Labour Organisation to engage on these issues," a Coles spokesman said.

A spokeswoman for Aldi confirmed the chain also used Thai Union as a supplier.

"We will review the Associated Press' investigative report as soon as it is released," the spokeswoman said.

A major global supplier
IGA Supermarkets said while Thai Union was not its major supplier it was unable to rule out stocking Thai Union produce.

"Some of our other locally based seafood suppliers may purchase prawns from Thai Union as they are one of the largest seafood suppliers in the world," a spokesman for IGA owner Metcash said.

All four major supermarket chains emphasised that they took the issue of child and forced labour very seriously.

In a prepared statement, Thai Union president and chief executive Thiraphong Chansiri described the report as a "wake-up call" for the company.

"Any illegal or unethical labour practices are unacceptable to Thai Union, and we are committed to take the necessary actions to ensure products in our supply chain are brought to market in a way that is consistent with our values to operate with integrity and with the utmost respect for human rights – nothing less will be tolerated," Mr Thiraphong said.

The company said it would bring all processing in-house.

Greenpeace campaigner Nathaniel Pelle said Thai Union was a major supplier of Australian seafood and consumers should be aware of this even if they were buying seafood from smaller retailers and seafood specialists.

"Without a doubt Australians are buying seafood, including prawns from Thai union, and unfortunately supporting these practices in Asia that are widespread."

Last week Greenpeace released a report on the prawn industry in Thailand that found several companies engaging in poor labour and environmental practices.