Thailand: Human Rights Abuses Persist In Fishing Industry

Despite revising policies and monitoring activities in their massive fishing industry to safeguard the 300,000 fishing workers, Thailand continues to dodge claims of widespread abuses of slavery, human trafficking, and forced labour. As one of the biggest seafood exporters in the world, the Thai fishing industry greatly relies on low-skilled workers traveling from Cambodia, Myanmar as well as Laos in search of work. In 2014, The Guardian reported that the seafood caught by forced labour working on Thai fishing boats were used to feed shrimp that was grown and exported for sale in the world’s top four retailers.

Subsequently, the United States downgraded Thailand in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report to the lowest possible status. With growing pressure and numerous media exposes, the European Union (EU) gave Thailand a ‘yellow card’ in 2015, threatening to ban its seafood products in Europe if the state didn’t quickly solve these problems. Since this warning, the Thai government has implemented improved policies and monitoring activities to ensure that the so-called yellow card is removed. However, numerous human rights organizations argue that little progress has been made as there are still many reports of workers suffering exploitation and abuse in Thailand’s fishing industry.

The story of Mithouna Phakrinha, a migrant fisherman who found work on a Thai fishing boat in 2015, is unfortunately all too common. “Often we were at sea for six days in a row. We only slept for five hours per night, sometimes just one hour. Some of us were so tired that we couldn’t really work anymore. We were so exhausted that we made mistakes, for example letting fish fall out of a basket. If the manager saw that, he would get angry and beat you. Sometimes with his bare hands, sometimes with a chain. It could get very bloody [sic].” Another migrant fisherman attempted to file a criminal complaint after his brother never returned from an expedition from the country’s fishing docks. When the fishing company learnt of the complaint, they threatened to file a fake complaint against the man for stealing a boat. The migrant fisherman had to drop the case for fear of his life. Unfortunately, these stories are becoming increasingly common in an industry with widespread exploitation and abuse.

Moreover, in response to the growing pressure, Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) revised and improved the fishing industry’s inspection frameworks and monitoring regimes. Officials note that laws and penalties have been strengthened and increased. The government is planning on issuing certificates to foreign vessels working on Thai shores in order to diminish the number of illegal and unregulated fishing boats. The country’s cabinet approved draft amendments to a decree that will eliminate worker punishment and improve labour conditions of migrant workers. By focusing on contracts between migrant workers and fishing boats, there will be greater control and monitoring of foreign workers moving to Thailand. Employees who hire undocumented migrants will suffer heavy financial fines, with repeat offenders possibly facing a prison sentence.

In addition, while the reforms that have focused on the NCPO establishing greater control over fishing operations are commendable, they have little influence on the human rights abuses that migrant workers are continuing to face. Introduced in 2015, the revised inspection frameworks lack meaningful interaction between workers and Thai officials. Thai labour inspectors assume that only undocumented migrants can be victims of exploitation and forced labour. Therefore, working under these false assumptions, labour inspections rely on dubious paper records and unconfirmed information from managing crew members and employees to properly monitor working conditions. In addition, inspectors focus on more objective conditions of exploitation such as physical mistreatment or forcible confinement. As such, assessments focus on whether workers show indications of physical mistreatment, missing superficial human rights abuses of forced labour and illegal wages.  

A recent Human Rights Watch report titled “Hidden Chains: Forced Labour and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry” described how vulnerable migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries are still being recruited into the Thai fishing industry where upon arrival, they are prevented from changing employees and forced to work overtime and extremely long hours, and not paid in accordance with Thai law. There are claims of workers being physically abused, with one documented case suggesting that migrant workers were violently beaten by senior crew members because they failed to understand certain orders, or didn’t work fast enough. Furthermore, the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s “Ship to Shore Rights Project,” revealed that just 66 percent of workers in the Thai fishing industry receive the minimum wage.

Fishing companies are continuing to use brokers to source migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Despite the NCPO promising to solve this rampant human trafficking, those who are behind the illegal process have rarely been held accountable. Since the ‘yellow card’ was placed on Thailand, only a small handful of trafficking-related arrests were made. As a result, despite the NCPO revising management regimes and laws, the prevalence of ongoing labour and human rights abuses still reflects a longstanding lack of respect for basic rights in the Thai fishing sector.

Before the EU lifts the ‘yellow card’ placed on Thailand over three years ago, the country should pass a law that completely criminalizes forced labour, which will demonstrate that itr is serious about enforcing necessary laws to protect workers from human rights abuses. Moreover, the The Thai government must make activists and migrant workers feel safe to speak out without fear of retribution. Without appropriate legal provisions criminalizing these practices, victims have little hope of feeling safe in speaking out without fear of retribution, accessing necessary remedies, or seeing that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. Third parties providing migrant workers to the fishing industry must be regulated so as to ensure that these brokers are licensed and working within formal recruitment channels. 

In addition to these recommendations, the EU should continue to pressure Thailand to improve the situation. While giving Thailand a ‘yellow card’ has led to some advances, placing an export ban on the country would significantly pressure the government to halt these human rights abuses. Overall, it is important to recognize the revised management policies and monitoring activities in the Thai fishing industry, but there is a lot that remains to be done for migrant workers so they can be safe and free of human rights abuses.