A Thai tuna processing factory has agreed to pay staff $1.3 million compensation for a litany of labour abuses, an official said Tuesday, a rare victory for migrant workers in the scandal-hit seafood industry.
Hundreds of Myanmar labourers at Golden Prize Tuna Canning, a processing plant in Samut Sakhon province east of Bangkok that sells fish worldwide, have spent months seeking compensation for exploitative working conditions.
Thailand is the world's third-largest seafood exporter, but the industry is plagued with rights abuses and fuelled by trafficked labour from neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia.
The sector has come under heightened scrutiny from foreign governments over the past year, with the European Union currently considering an all-out ban on Thai fishing products.
The United States also passed a bill last week outlawing goods produced by forced labour that could see Thailand targeted with import bans.
Rights groups say Golden Prize workers had long been subject to unlawfully low salaries, supervisor abuse and a lack of compensation for machine accidents on the 25-acre processing sites.
Following a strike last week by more than 1,000 workers, company representatives joined negotiations with military officers, government officials and migrant worker leaders, reaching an agreement late Monday.
"The company began paying 1,100 workers last night involving money of 48 million baht ($1.3m)," Boonlue Sartpetch, the head of the province's labour department, told AFP Tuesday.
He said 700 workers have been paid, with the rest expected to receive compensation Tuesday.
Golden Prize Tuna Canning, whose 2,000 workers hail mostly from Myanmar, declined to comment.
The junta that seized power in a 2014 coup has struggled to revive Thailand's flagging economy and is desperate to avoid any costly sanctions on the multi-billion dollar seafood sector.
It remains to be seen how Washington will enforce its new legislation on slave-produced goods.
But the US labour department currently lists Thai fish and shrimp as products the government has reason to believe are manufactured by slave labour.
Thai officials say they have moved fast to clean up the industry, with new laws and crackdowns on traffickers and fish factories.
Last month police said they arrested more than 100 people on trafficking charges linked to the fishing industry.
Authorities have also registered nearly half of an estimated 200,000 undocumented foreign workers in the seafood sector, officials said.
On Tuesday foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee hailed the peaceful settlement between Golden Prize and its workers as a model for future disputes.
"The government is committed to use this approach in order to eliminate labour exploitation and to uplift the quality of life of workers in Thailand," he said.
Andy Hall, a British labour activist who has been helping the Myanmar workers at Golden Prize Tuna, said he suspects the spectre of costly trade bans was finally forcing the Thai government to act.
"To get a dispute like this that involves so much money and actually have it settled is very unprecedented," he told AFP.
But he accused both the tuna company and local labour department of dodging the workers' complaints for nearly a year.
In the past some Thai factories have responded to rights abuse accusations with defamation lawsuits, which Hall is currently facing for highlighting alleged exploitation at a Thai fruit company.