Thailand has failed to live up to its commitments to change illegal and abusive employment practices and working conditions in its fishing industry, especially concerning migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia, according to a report issued by an international human rights group on Tuesday.
The 134-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes how forced labor remains widespread in Thailand’s fishing sector with the trafficking of migrant workers from neighboring countries.
It also says that the Thai government has largely failed to rein in labor abuses though it undertook comprehensive reforms to root out illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and forced labor in its fisheries sector in 2015 in the wake of media reports on human trafficking and the maltreatment of fishermen on Thai vessels.
The report titled “Hidden Chains: Forced Labor and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry” cites the systematic non-enforcement of the labor law and gaps in existing law, including the lack of a stand-alone law that would criminalize forced labor, as well as a continual ban on migrant workers forming labor unions as ongoing shortcomings in the protection of fishermen who have little recourse to defend themselves against abuses.
“Consumers in Europe, the U.S., and Japan should be confident that their seafood from Thailand didn’t involve trafficked or forced labor,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, in a statement. “Yet despite high-profile commitments by the Thai government to clean up the fishing industry, problems are rampant.”
HRW interviewed Thai government officials, boat owners and captains, civil society activists, fishing association representatives, and United Nations agency staff.
The group also talked to nearly 250 fishermen, almost all from Myanmar and Cambodia, who indicated that their employers routinely confiscate their identification cards, force them to work more than 14 hours a day with no rest, pay them less than the minimum wage, issue payments only once or twice a year instead of monthly, forbid them to change employers, and force them to work in dirty and dangerous conditions.
Of those interviewed in all of Thailand’s major fishing ports between 2015 and 2017, fewer than 100 were former fishermen who were trafficked, while the remainder were still active fishermen.
“It was torture,” Myanmar trafficking survivor Zin Min Thet told HRW in March 2016 in Bang Rin in southern Thailand’s Ranong province. “One time I was so tired I fell off the boat, but they pulled me back on board.”
Myanmar fisherman Thet Phyo Lin told HRW in August 2016 in Mueang Pattani in southern Thailand’s Pattani province that if he wanted to quit working, he needed permission from his employer.
“Some employers allow us to leave, but some will claim we must pay off debts first,” he said. “For example, if I can pay 25,000 [Thai] baht [U.S. $783] to an employer … he may allow me to leave, but if he isn’t satisfied … I would have to pay whatever he demanded.”
‘Culture of abuse’
Many migrant fishermen said they had neither seen nor signed standardized contracts detailing payment terms and work conditions, which fleet owners are required to give them by law.
Many also said they were unaware of the contract’s existence or that they just signed the documents they were told to sign at employment offices.
“Forced labor in the Thai fishing industry has persisted amid a culture of abuse, even as the government has undertaken high-profile initiatives to clean up the sector and portray a better image internationally,” the report said.
In response to the media exposés a few years ago, the European Union gave Thailand a “yellow card” warning that it could be subject to a ban on seafood exports to the bloc because of its illegal fishing practices and demanded that Thai fishing fleets stop abusing the rights of undocumented and trafficked migrant workers.
The United States in its most recent Trafficking in Persons report placed Thailand on its Tier 2 watch list of nations not meeting minimum standards to end human trafficking — one step above the bottom tier.
Following these measures, the Thai government issued a new ordinance to regulate the fishing industry and extended the application of key labor law provisions regulating wages and work conditions to fishing boats, HRW said.
The government also adopted a ministerial regulation that requires migrant fishermen to have legal documents and be accounted for on crew lists as boats depart and return to port in a bid to curb extreme abuses such as captains killing crew members, HRW said.
Thailand also created “port-in, port-out” control centers to require vessels to report for inspections as they leave and return to port and to establish procedures for inspecting boats at sea.
'A theatrical exercise'
While some measures, such as vessel monitoring systems and limiting time at sea to 30 days, have resulted in improvements, others that specifically address forced labor and human rights protection have fallen short of the mark, HRW said.
Labor inspection is “largely a theatrical exercise for international consumption,” while Thai vessels lack effective or systematic inspections of fishermen who work aboard them, despite significant resources provided to the Thai Ministry of Labor which oversees worker regulations, HRW said.
“The Thai government’s lack of commitment means that regulations and programs to prevent forced labor in the fishing industry are failing,” Adams said. “International producers, buyers, and retailers of Thai seafood have a key role in ensuring that forced labor and other abuses come to an end.”
The rights group also found that Thailand’s “pink card” registration scheme, which ties fishermen’s legal status to specific locations and employers whose permission they need to change jobs, has created “an environment ripe for abuse” of migrant workers.
Created in 2014 to reduce the number of undocumented migrant workers in Thailand, the scheme allows ship owners to present a veneer of compliance to complacent government officials content to rely on paper records the employers submit as proof of legal conformity, HRW said.
“No one should be fooled by regulations that look good on paper but are not properly enforced,” Adams said. “The EU and U.S. urgently need to increase pressure on Thailand to protect the rights, health, and safety of fishers.
A Thai official questioned the validity of HRW’s report.
“What HRW showed was based on one-sided information that was compiled. This is somewhat obsolete,” Vice Admiral Wanaphol Klomkaew with the Command Center for Combating Illegal Fishing told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. “We understand [HRW] wants to discredit us.”