DESPITE government commitments to reform the industry, forced labour and other rights abuses remain widespread in Thailand’s fishing fleets, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said Tuesday.
“I didn’t know what was going on when I arrived. They just put me in a lockup, and it was only when the boat came in that I realised that was where I’d have to work,” Burmese trafficking survivor, Bang Rin told the international rights group.
The report interviewed 248 current and former fishers and found migrant workers from neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia are often trafficked into fishing work, prevented from changing employers, not paid on time, and paid below the minimum wage.
The industry came under scrutiny after a 2014 report from the Guardian newspaper exposed the often violent and dehumanising environment many workers are forced to work in. Their six-month investigation established that large numbers of were men bought and sold like animals and held against their will. The prawns they catch were then being sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.
In response to the Guardians report, the Thai government scrapped antiquated fishing laws and extended labour rights to workers on fishing vessels. They also made it a legal requirement for migrant fishers to have legal documents and be accounted for on crew lists as boats departed and returned to port, helping to end some of the worst abuses, such as captains killing crew members.
Despite these highly publicised efforts to address problems, HRW found widespread shortcomings in the government’s implementation of the new regulations, as well as a resistance within the industry to comply.
“Consumers in Europe, the US, and Japan should be confident that their seafood from Thailand didn’t involve trafficked or forced labour,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Yet despite high-profile commitments by the Thai government to clean up the fishing industry, problems are rampant.”
While some measures, such as vessel monitoring and limiting time at sea to 30 days, have been adhered to, others to address forced labour have not. HRW found the boat inspections were more for show to appease international concerns, rather than addressing the issue of labour and human rights. Migrant workers were rarely interviewed.
“[The Thai officials] come maybe 10 at a time in a vehicle – men and women. They have us line up, show our pink cards, call out our names, we raise our hands, they’re gone,” Cambodian fisher Tong Seng said, referring to the government’s “pink card” registration scheme, introduced in 2014 to reduce the number of undocumented migrant workers.
Thai labour law makes it difficult for migrant workers to assert their rights. Fishers’ fear of retaliation and abuse by boat captains and vessel owners is a major factor, but Thailand also restricts the rights of migrant workers to organise into labour unions to take collective action.
HRW has presented in-depth proposals to rectify the problems in the industry and also urged the EU and the US to do more to ensure Thailand complies with international labour laws.
“No one should be fooled by regulations that look good on paper but are not properly enforced,” Adams said. “The EU and US urgently need to increase pressure on Thailand to protect the rights, health, and safety of fishers.”