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Deportation Of Foreign Workers Hits Thai Canneries Thailand, December 17, 12

Thai tuna canneries – which are the world’s largest producers and exporters of canned tuna – could be threatened as nearly two million foreign workers face deportation because they are illegal or they did not meet the country’s deadline to verify their nationalities.

An estimated 2.5 million foreigners are labourers in Thailand and about 900,000 were registered with authorities prior to last Friday’s deadline. About 350,000 registered workers failed to prove their nationality in time and with the other estimated 1.5 million labourers who work illegally, that means approximately 1.85 million people face deportation.

As of late 2010, there were 30 canneries operating in Thailand, with a total combined processing capacity of 3,000 tons of raw material per day. Given that the average worker can clean 250 kg per day, this means there must be at least 12,000 tuna cleaners employed every day in the Thai industry who are dedicated to cleaning the fish. There are, of course, many other employees in related industry jobs. Each year, tuna workers clean approximately 800,000 tons of whole round raw tuna, which makes the tuna canning industry a major employer and strongly depending on immigrant workers.

Labour rights and business groups had urged the Thai government to extend the deadline for deportation, but it held fast to its policy.

Now that the deadline has passed, the government plans to “get strict about deporting all unverified labourers,” according to an immigrations official. But given the massive illegal workforce – mostly citizens from Cambodia, Lao and Myanmar – in Thai fisheries and construction industries, some think the government’s threats are empty. Whatever the short term outcome it will eventually have it’s effect on the future of the canning sector in the country.

One of the country’s leading labour organizations says Thai authorities could instead start to take advantage of the undocumented workers, once those with documents are no longer available.

In 2011, the volume of Thai tuna exports was stable overall compared to 2010, despite the low supply and higher prices of raw materials. Thailand shipped 0.03% less in tuna products – canned tuna and tuna loins – to markets around the world last year, for a total of 535,333 tons.

Thailand’s government has also recently increased its minimum daily wage by 30% to 300 baht (about USD 9.80).