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Thailand's fishing industry must clean up its act

Publication Date : 05-09-2013


As Thailand is slammed yet again, wouldn't it be more sensible to register migrant workers and enforce laws fairly so that everyone benefits and labour shortages are addressed?

A report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released on Monday is yet another blow to the reputation of Thailand’s fishing industry.

The latest report by the United Nations agency pointed to "serious abuses" such as forced labour and violence against employees, most of them immigrants from Myanmar and Cambodia.

The report, "Employment Practices and Working Conditions in Thailand's Fishing Sector", is based on a survey conducted among 596 workers in four of the main fishing provinces - Samut Sakhon, Rayong, Ranong and Songkhla. Ten per cent of the respondents reported being severely beaten on board vessels and more than a quarter said they worked or were on call for 17 to 24 hours a day. A quarter of respondents said they'd been deceived or coerced into working at sea. The survey also found that living and working conditions on long-haul vessels are worse than on boats that regularly return to shore.

"This study does find serious abuses within the sector," said ILO senior programme officer Max Tunon.

Thailand, the world's third-largest fish exporter by value, with estimated sales of 210 billion baht (US$6.51 billion), has been under international pressure to respond to reports of its labourers being forced to work as virtual slaves under brutal conditions.

In May the Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK-based non-profit organisation working to defend human rights and protect the environment, released a report entitled "Sold to the Sea: Human Trafficking in Thailand's Fishing Industry". It revealed "evidence of human trafficking, labour abuse and routine violence including murder". The report challenged Thailand's progress on preventing human trafficking and requested that the US State Department downgrade Thailand to Tier 3 - the lowest ranking possible in terms of efforts to combat human trafficking.

The situation is a main concern expressed in the US State Department's own "Trafficking in Persons Report", released in June. A large part of the section about Thailand concerned problems in the fishing industry. "Weak law enforcement, inadequate human and financial resources, and fragmented coordination among regulatory agencies in the fishing industry contributed to overall impunity for exploitative labour practices in this sector," the report said. However, Thailand has remained on the US's Tier 2 Watch List.

With inadequate action on the part of the authorities to tackle this problem, Thailand will constantly remain under international pressure. The ILO report recommends that buyers of Thai seafood products "continue to advocate for and develop means for the monitoring of stricter regulatory standards to prevent and eliminate forced labour and other unacceptable forms of work from occurring within supply chains".

These issues in our fishing sector seem to be worsening, not improving. The authorities must strictly enforce the law and arrest and punish those who abuse and otherwise violate the rights of workers in the industry. Many of the victims are not citizens of this country - and neither are some of the perpetrators, although it is certain that Thai nationals are involved in the abuse.

The labour laws must be fairly applied to all workers in the fishing sector, although an obvious obstacle is that many workers are illegal migrants, without written employment contracts. Perhaps it's time to consider registering such workers and improving their working conditions in order to address the severe labour shortages in the sector.


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