While the government has said it is committed to reforms in the management of migrant workers, a newly released Human Rights Watch (HRW) report says forced labour and rights abuses are still widespread in the Kingdom’s fishing fleets.
The 134-page report, “Hidden Chains: Forced Labor and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry,” and a 15-minute film were released at a briefing at the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday.
While the illegal-fishing yellow card that the European Union placed on Thailand and the country’s inclusion on the United States’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP)’s Tier 2 Watch List have helped to improve the situation, HRW found widespread shortcomings in the implementation of new government regulations and resistance in the fishing industry to reforms.
“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, HRW’s Asia director. “Yet, despite high-profile commitments by the Thai government to clean up the fishing industry, problems are rampant.”
In compiling the report, the New York-based rights group interviewed 248 current and former fishery workers, almost all from Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as Thai government officials, boat owners and captains, civil-society activists, fishing association representatives, and United Nations agency staff.
Of the fishery workers interviewed, 95 were former workers who survived documented incidents of human trafficking, while the other 153 were, with a few exceptions, still active in the sector.
The research was carried out in every one of Thailand’s major fishing ports from 2015 to 2017.
After the EU’s yellow card for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and the TIP downgrade in 2014, the Thai authorities responded by scrapping antiquated fishing laws and issuing a new ordinance to regulate the industry.
Migrant fishery workers were required 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.
Thailand also created the Port-in, Port-out (PIPO) system to require boats to report for inspections as they departed and returned to port, and established procedures for the inspection of fishing vessels at sea.
Some measures, such as vessel-monitoring systems and limiting time at sea to 30 days, have led to important improvements for fishery workers, the HRW report said.
However, measures to address forced labour and other important labour and human rights protection measures often prioritise form over results, according to the report.
Despite significant resources provided to the Labour Ministry and its departments, there is no effective or systematic inspection of those working aboard Thai vessels, the rights agency said.
In its 2015 report on human trafficking, Thailand revealed that inspections of 474,334 fishery workers failed to identify a single case of forced labour.
More recently, over 50,000 inspections of migrant workers implausibly did not find a single instance where laws on conditions and hours of work, wages, treatment on board, and other issues in the Labour Protection Act of 1998, the 2014 Ministerial Regulation, and attendant regulations had been violated, the report stated.
“The Thai government’s lack of commitment means that regulations and programmes to prevent forced labour in the fishing industry are failing,” Adams said. “International producers, buyers, and retailers of Thai seafood have a key role in ensuring that forced labour and other abuses come to an end.”
Thai labour law makes it difficult for migrant workers to assert their rights. Fishery workers’ 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, it added.
“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 fishery workers.”
The report also provided accounts from workers in the fishery sector.
“I didn’t know what was going on when I arrived. They just put me in a lock-up, and it was only when the boat came in that I realised that was where I’d have to work. I went to do my pink card application on the 4th, and on the 5th I was out on the boat,” said a Myanmar trafficking survivor at Bang Rin, in Ranong province, in March 2016.
“You can’t leave because if you leave you won’t get paid, and if you want to leave at the end it’s only if they let you. Unless you leave without your money and your [pink] card, you have to obtain their permission,” said Bien Vorn, a Cambodian fishery worker in Rayong province in November 2016.