2020 award recipient

Migrant Workers Rights Network



Migrant Workers Rights Network named 2020 recipient of Human Rights and Business Award

Human Rights and Business Award Foundation

Geneva, 17 November 2020 – Today, during the annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights, our foundation is naming Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) as recipient of the 2020 Human Rights and Business Award. The award, recognizing “outstanding work by human rights defenders addressing the human rights impacts of business”, is accompanied by a $50,000 grant. The 2020 award was announced today by the foundation’s board in a brief English-language video, which also features comments by MWRN leaders accepting the award. The video is also available in Thai and in Burmese.

The foundation’s board members (Chris Avery, Regan Ralph and Valeria Scorza) said today: “We congratulate MWRN for its outstanding work toward securing just and humane treatment for migrant workers in Thailand. The award this year honors MWRN, and serves as a reminder of how much remains to be done to stop the widespread discrimination and abuses that migrant workers continue to suffer in Thailand and across the world.

Achievements of Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN)

MWRN is a grassroots member-based association that works to protect the rights of migrant workers who live and work in Thailand, the majority being from Myanmar. The organization was founded in 2009 by nine Myanmar migrant leaders after seeing extensive exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in Thai factories, the seafood industry, agriculture, and construction. They decided that empowerment of migrants is the best way for migrant workers to protect themselves. Migrant workers themselves continue to lead and run MWRN.

MWRN trains workers on their rights, investigates abuses, helps workers negotiate with employers and officials, advocates for policy change, and promotes access to justice. The organization helps workers to use workplace grievance mechanisms and legal processes. MWRN also works to prevent human trafficking and forced labor.

Thailand’s export-oriented economy is driven by approximately 4 million migrant workers from neighboring countries, over 2.3 million of them from Myanmar. MWRN has documented many cases of migrant workers in Thailand being subjected to abuses of internationally-recognized human rights and labor standards, including discrimination, excessive recruitment fees leading to debt bondage, forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, failure to receive a living wage, passport confiscation and limited freedom of movement. Thailand recently introduced regulatory reforms to its migration and employment process but enforcement is inadequate. And Thai law continues to prohibit migrant workers from forming their own unions.

In some industries the working conditions are particularly dangerous. “Hands and legs are cut off by machines and [government occupational safety] officials are not doing good job of monitoring machines for safety,” said Aung Kyaw, an MWRN leader, in 2019. Some employers have failed to compensate workers injured on the job.

MWRN has successfully intervened to help tens of thousands of migrant workers, and empowered migrant workers to demand their rights.  Through its pressure on Thai employers to improve their practices, and its pressure on overseas purchasers of Thai products, MWRN has improved industry standards in many cases.  Unfortunately, most companies still rely primarily on third-party audits and voluntary agreements to improve working conditions rather than binding agreements with workers that would provide access to legal recourse.

The following report, available in English and in Thai, describes in Chapter V some of the work and achievements of MWRN: “Time for a Sea Change: Why union rights for migrant workers are needed to prevent forced labor in the Thai seafood industry”, International Labor Rights Forum, March 2020.  See also the following brief video featuring Suthasinee Kaewleklai, a Coordinator of MWRN: “Everyday Rights”.

MWRN does not have a website, but has a Facebook page in Burmese and Thai: https://www.facebook.com/mwrnorg

Harassing lawsuits brought by Thai companies against labor rights defenders

Some Thai companies – including pineapple firm Natural Fruit Company and poultry firm Thammakaset – have brought multiple lawsuits against labor rights advocates (including MWRN staff) after they exposed widespread abuses.  These lawsuits have been strongly criticized by international human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) – and by global trade unions and others – as unwarranted and an attempt to harass, intimidate and silence workers and human rights defenders.  FIDH maintains a webpage, “Thammakaset Watch”, in English and in Thai, which documents the ongoing judicial harassment to which Thammakaset is subjecting human rights defenders, workers, and journalists.  In 2018 the United Nations Working Group on business and human rights condemned these lawsuits by Thai companies, saying they were being used as a tool against legitimate human rights work and freedom of expression.  In 2020 the Working Group declared: “We are deeply troubled by the information we continue to receive about migrant workers, human rights defenders, academics and journalists facing ill-founded defamation cases by the company Thammakaset when they raise legitimate concerns about working conditions in this company.”

A positive initiative by a Thai company and MWRN

Seafood products company Thai Union, whose international brands include Chicken of the Sea, John West, Petit Navire and Rügen Fisch, has been collaborating with MWRN to promote the rights of its workers, and to promote social dialogue.  In 2015 Thai Union announced: “To educate our migrant employees, overcoming language and cultural issues as well as informing them of their rights under Thai law is essential, which is why we have partnered with MWRN so as to draw upon their deep expertise in migrant worker labor issues.”  Thai Union has pledged to ensure that all its workers, whether migrants or Thai, have safe, legal employment and are treated fairly and with dignity.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

MWRN reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many migrant workers in Thailand.  Many have lost their jobs and are unable to provide for their families.  Many are excluded from economic relief packages; others have faced obstacles in securing the financial help to which they are entitled.  Some businesses have forced their migrant worker employees to sign resignation letters to avoid compensation for ending contracts.

Comments about MWRN

Comments about MWRN by the Human Rights and Business Award Foundation’s Advisory Network members, speaking in their personal capacities rather than for their organizations, included:

  • Harpreet Kaur, Business and Human Rights Specialist, United Nations Development Programme – Asia Regional Hub: “MWRN’s work in protecting the rights of migrant workers is exemplary. The organization works with a range of stakeholders and provides a full spectrum of support and advocacy to migrant workers.”
  • Joan Carling, Co-Convenor, Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group (IPMG) for Sustainable Development: “I admire MWRN’s strong commitment and persistence. This is an organization of rights-holders who are fundamentally marginalized for profit and economic growth.”
  • Maddalena Neglia, Head, Globalisation & Human Rights, International Federation for Human Rights: “MWRN has done great work assisting migrant workers for more than a decade despite challenges coming from all quarters (Thai government, Burmese government, and Thai companies). I had occasion to witness directly their impressive work exposing abuses and helping provide remedies for affected people in Thailand in a very risky environment.”
  • Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director & Head of Europe Office, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre: “One of the special qualities of MWRN is that it was founded by Burmese migrant workers, and migrant workers themselves drive the work of the organization.”

All nominees for the 2020 award

Following is a list of all the organizations nominated for the 2020 Human Rights and Business Award by members of the foundation’s Advisory Network.  Each of these is doing important work deserving international recognition.

About the foundation

Human Rights and Business Award Foundation is an independent non-profit foundation.  To ensure its independence, the foundation does not accept donations from any government or any company.  The foundation’s Board members and Advisory Network members from across the world are listed on this webpage.  Contact: contact@humanrightsandbusinessaward.org

Migrant Workers Rights Network is the third recipient of the annual award.  The 2019 recipient was Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian organization which has documented and monitored violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Occupied Palestinian Territory by Israeli and multinational companies.  The 2018 recipient was Justiça nos Trilhos, an organization working closely with local communities in remote parts of Brazil – including indigenous peoples, peasants, and Afro-descendants – to address human rights and environmental abuses by mining and steel companies, in particular the multinational Vale.