Keo Rotha was sitting in his small brick house in a quiet village in Pursat province, surrounded by coconut trees and a bamboo fence, looking at his old phone while waiting for a call to tell him the results of the court case he and six other human trafficking victims had filed in the United States and Thailand against four big companies.
In 2011, the 41-year-old father of three, whose wife works as a Khmer teacher at a secondary school, decided to apply for a passport and find work in Thailand in an attempt to give his wife and children a better life.
He contacted the Manpower recruitment agency in Cambodia, which sent him to Thailand through the checkpoint at Poipet along with 80 other Cambodians looking for work. After crossing the border, a bus took them to Songkhla province in Thailand’s south, near the Malaysian border, to the Phatthana Seafood Company.
“In my mind, I thought that there would be a well-paying job so I could help my family and improve their lives, but after working for only a few days, I realized it was hopeless because I was forced to work with no break for a whole week and forced to work overtime,” he said.
Mr. Rotha had never been away from his hometown before and in southern Thailand, he was taken to live in an empty rented house which cost 800 baht per month. His employers moved him from house to house every one or two months, giving no reasons for the moves.
“Once we started work, we worked in a shrimp factory, and after we started to work the company took our passports,” he recalled. “I had no days off and worked overtime every day, but was only paid 6,000 baht per month, much less than the 10,000 baht I had been promised.”
He said working in the factory with more than 200 Burmese nationals and Cambodians was like being in hell because they had to work unguarded with dangerous chemicals. Some workers who asked the company to improve the conditions were ignored, so they escaped, he told Khmer Times. They were forced to work from 7am to 9pm and were only allowed a one-hour break for lunch.
“We refused to work overtime, but the company disagreed and made us work. We only had two days off a year, when it was their New Year,” he said.
Seeing the plight of his fellow Cambodians made him desperate, and while listening to a radio show talking about helping people who worked in factories, Mr. Rotha managed to contact an organization that helped Cambodian workers in Thailand.
“We all owed money in Cambodia to the people who sent us to work in Thailand,” he said. “But once we arrived in Thailand, I decided to seek legal assistance from organizations in Cambodia, and then they came to intervene at the factory.”
Right when the organizations intervened, thousands of workers held a large protest at the same time, resulting in Thai military action. In June 2012, the company warned him and told him he had defamed the company’s image.
He demanded his passport back, but the company kept making excuses and delayed returning it to him. After lying to him repeatedly, the company finally gave his passport to him and let him leave through Chanthaburi province.
They dropped him at the Cambodia-Thailand border at the Chantaburi-Pailin border gate.
“I was unemployed for one week while waiting for my passport, which they kept since I first arrived there,” he said.
He said that he and the others he worked with were tough and hard-working, but the people he met who worked on fishing boats had it much harder than him. He spoke with people who worked on Thai fishing boats and they told him that whenever they went out to sea, it was very difficult and they were forced to use drugs to keep them awake.
They said they only returned to dry land every six months or even once every year.
“I was told that there were people killed and tossed into the sea regularly. When the boat’s captains or crew got angry, they killed people and tossed them into the sea,” he said.
Chhan Sothea, a 27-year-old Cambodian who worked at the same company and is a plaintiff in the case filed in the US, spent almost two years at the Thai company.
He said that before he arrived in Thailand, he was promised he’d have a nice place to stay, be well-paid and the company would obey the strict Thai labor laws. But when he arrived, the reality was quite different.
“I had to work overtime with no break and was paid at the most 7,000 baht a month, but the company took back 3,000 baht of that and they said it was money for them for giving us a job,” he said.
After the mass protests in 2012, Mr. Sothea returned home and filed a complaint against the company in 2013. It was not until 2015 that a lawyer’s representative from the United States came to ask him questions.
“Last month, someone who worked with me said that they got our complaints, so I hope that the courts will find justice for our people and the Burmese because we were repressed very much and they didn’t obey the law,” he said.
He added that if he and the others had not filed their complaints, the world would not know how Thai seafood companies mistreated their workers. The complaints were filed to seek justice for all workers as well as to force the company to obey the labor laws, he said.
“Do not treat us as the poor or animals. They must consider that we have the same rights,” he said.
Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world, but the industry has been marred by rights violations and often uses workers who were trafficked from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia.
The Thai seafood sector has been under pressure to clean up its act from foreign governments and last year the European Union also issued warnings about Thai seafood products and threatened sanctions. The United States also implemented a new law recently that prohibits products made using forced labor in Thailand and has also threatened sanctions against Thailand.
Phattana Seafoods’ managing director Paiboon Dussadeevutikul could not be reached for comment.
Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said he had not yet received any information related to Cambodians who worked in Thailand and the complaints they filed to the courts in Thailand and the US.
Dy The Hoya, a program officer at labor rights group Central who worked on the case, said a total of seven victims, five men and two women, had filed complaints to the Federal Court in Los Angeles, California, and named Walmart, Rubicon Resources Corporation Company, Wales & Co. Universe and a branch of Thailand’s Phatthana Seafood as the companies which violated laws related to human trafficking in the United States.
“The reason for filing complaints to these four companies was because we found that Phatthana Seafood supplies products to US company Walmart, so a team of lawyers in the US is helping get compensation,” he said.
He added that this case has been worked on since 2012, the lawyers have finished their search for evidence and the US court received the case in June. Lawyers also filed a complaint in the Thai court system because the company’s products are made in Thailand, where they are then bought by US companies.
“Because we ran out of patience, in April 2012 all the workers started a mass protest, which led to Thai officials using guns and firing warning shots in the air to threaten and to stop the protest,” he said. “The workers protested because they could not stand the repression and the way the company disobeyed the labor laws.”
In a previous case in March this year, a tuna company in Thailand agreed to pay compensation to migrant employees amounting to $1.3 million after repeated conflicts at the seafood processing factory in Thailand. Hundreds of Myanmar workers at the factory produced cans of tuna at the Golden Prize Tuna Canning factory in Samut Sakhon province, which were sold to markets around the world.
Cambodia’s new Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon visited Thailand for two days from June 19 to 20 and met Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai to talk about problems along the border, human trafficking, transnational crime, illegal logging and Cambodian workers in Thailand.
“The reason I filed my complaint against the company was because I want this company not to do this again and to stop exploiting people in the future,” Mr Rotha told Khmer Times.
“I dare not to turn off my phone as I am waiting for a call from Phnom Penh for the lawyer to tell me about the news of my complaint.”
Former Thai seafood factory worker Keo Rotha is happy to be back home in Cambodia. KT/Mai Vireak