Sea Slaves: The Violation Of Human Rights Within The Fishing Industry In Southeast Asia

In March 2015, after 18 months of investigation, Associated Press (AP) journalists first traced the seafood available in supermarkets across the world to the abusive practices of human trafficking and slavery within the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. The Associated Press reported that “this intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth,” exposing its readers to the harsh reality that their “seafood may come from slaves.” While the initial report about the continuous violation of human rights led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves, the failure of the international community, especially the Thai Government, to fundamentally address the interwoven relationship between unsustainable fishing and human rights abuses has associated the fishing industry with one of the most significant violations of ecological and human rights in recent years.

The Associated Press exposed appalling abuses in the Thai industry operating off the coasts of Southeast Asia that relied on thousands of slaves smuggled from Myanmar (Burma)  or Thailand. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Thai seafood industry employs more than 800,000 people, while seafood exports are valued at 6 billion USD. Slave labourers smuggled from neighbouring states work in horrendous conditions where individuals are brutalised, kept in cages at ports on remote islands in Indonesia, and forced to work against their will. As the world’s fourth largest seafood exporter, many exporters rely on human trafficking networks of this slave labour to crew their vessels and lower costs to provide cheap seafood to western markets. The lack of an adequate fisheries management in the region and the enforcement of human rights law has facilitated the fishing industry in Thailand. AP also added that “agents have become more desperate and ruthless, recruiting children and the disabled, lying about wages and even drugging and kidnapping migrants.” According to the UN, 60 percent of Burmese migrants in Thailand’s seafood industry were victims of forced labour.

A growing number of independent reports over such violations of human rights in Thailand by organisations such as Greenpeace, the Environmental Justice Foundation, and the Associated Press during the past decade have documented thousands of cases of abuse, calling for international attention to the issue. As a result, in 2014 the US State Department put Thailand down to the lowest tier on its Trafficking in Persons Report, while in May 2015, the European Union called Thailand a “non-cooperating” country due to its failure to monitor its fishing vessels and the trade of seafood from other countries into Thailand.

In response to international pressure from both sides of the Atlantic, Thailand’s Government introduced new regulations and controls over the country’s fishing vessels. However, despite international pressure, human rights abuses in Thailand’s fishing industry continue to persist in remote, unpoliced waters, according to a new Greenpeace report called ‘Turn the Tide’. In its investigation after government reforms, Greenpeace found that the Thai seafood industry fell persistently short of international labour, ecological, and human rights standards, resulting in the exploitation of trafficked laborers. Recent investigations by the Environmental Justice Foundation in the report entitled “Thailand’s Seafood Slaves Human Trafficking, Slavery and Murder in Kantang’s Fishing Industry”  also found that the government’s Port in-Port out (PIPO) system was unable to identify or assist victims of trafficking, forced, and bonded labour. This is because the PIPO system’s mobile registration regularises victims of trafficking since many officials assume fishers in possession of formal identification did not require screening for indicators of trafficking, forced or bonded labour.

Greenpeace also reported that vessels travel thousands of miles into the remote waters of  the Saya de Malha Bank area off the coast of east Africa to avoid detection surveillance as crew transfers occur at sea. AP reported that “some fishermen were so depressed that they simply threw themselves into the water,” and that “captains began stowing corpses alongside the fish in ship freezers until they arrived back in Benjina.” Greenpeace also claimed that much of the seafood caught by Thai vessels is unregulated as many frequently use fake permits and ghost fleets to avoid inspections. The organisation also reported that while crew members report being held against their will, authorities clear the vessels to return to port. Many survivors of abuse told Greenpeace that Captains routinely abuse, beat and traffic fishermen, especially when there is insufficient food or when exhausted crew members try to rest. Greenpeace reported that trafficked men were promised jobs at onshore fish processing factory, but were instead forced to work 20-hour days, seven days a week with freedom available only to those who paid back the 30,000 baht  834 USD for which the captains had purchased them.

Despite a lack of major improvement in the condition of workers within the fishing industry, the US government upgraded Thailand from tier 3 to the tier 2 watch list in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, claiming that the Thai government had met the minimum standards required to fight human trafficking and violations of human rights. According to the Guardian, the report cited “significant efforts made by the Thai government to eliminate human trafficking within its borders. An increase in investigations, prosecutions and convictions, together with amended anti-trafficking legislation, were identified as factors in Thailand’s improved status.” However, “the report also pointed to evidence of continued trafficking in the fishing, sex, agriculture and domestic work industries, as well as ongoing government complicity in trafficking crimes.” This move by the US government attracted harsh criticism from human rights groups including the Environmental Justice Foundation. The Environmental Justice Foundation claimed that the government made “the wrong decision at the wrong time,” and “called on more durable reforms to ensure that corrupt practices, which have driven so many abuses, are addressed.”

By failing to address the fundamental issues of human rights and the lack of sustainable methods of fishing in the region, many continue to remain victims of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of traffickers. However, organisations such as the Environmental Justice Foundation believe that “solutions to ‘pirate’ fishing and slavery in Thailand’s fishing sector are available, practical and achievable through a multi-track approach emphasising leadership, coordinated joint action and genuine commitment from all stakeholders.” This being considered, a genuine desire to reform the industry with robust enforcement measurement and coordinated action can bring significant changes to the industry and to the lives of those who have become victims of human trafficking and slave labour.

This report has relied on information from the Guardian, CNN, the Environmental Justice Foundation, and the Associated Press

Nishtha Sharma