Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a comprehensive report investigating human trafficking and forced labour in the Thai fishing industry.

The report, titled ‘Hidden Chains: Forced Labour and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s fishing industry’, documents specific cases of human rights violations suffered by migrant fishermen trafficked from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries..

Over the past two years, HRW interviewed 248 current and former workers in the fishing industry to identify troubling practices of recruitment, salaries, working hours, and health and safety regulations. Among the group were 95 workers who are recognised as victims of trafficking by the Thai government.

Burmese trafficking survivor Zin Met Thet said of his experience: “It was torture. One time I was so tired I fell off the boat, but they pulled me back on-board.”

“If I want to quit working here I need to request permission from the employer. Some employers allow us to leave, but some will claim we must pay off debts first. For example, if I can pay THB 25,000 [$762] to an employer…he may allow me to leave, but if he isn’t satisfied…I would have to pay whatever he demanded,” said Pattani resident Thet Phyo Lin.

Thai government efforts

According to HRW, the Thai government has failed thus far in its attempts to mitigate human rights abuses from the fishing industry. The National Council for Peace and Order, Thailand’s military dictatorship, introduced new human rights guidelines for the fishing industry after usurping power in 2014.

The government attempted to overhaul monitoring, control and management regimes and created new interagency inspection frameworks across the country, with official inspectors employed to search fishing boats on departure and arrival to port. Some workers have obtained official documentation from the government. Penalties for infringing on the rights of fishermen have increased substantially.

While the government has cracked down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, it has failed to protect migrant fishermen from abuses by ship owners, crew members, traders and even members of the police force, according to HRW.

In its 2015 report, the Thai Ministry of Labour suggested that it reviewed the working conditions of 474,334 workers and did not find a single case of forced labour. A more recent study also failed to find any instance of legal breaches regarding hours of work, salary disputes, treatment on-board, or other criteria violating the Labour Protection Act of 1998 or the 2014 Ministerial Regulation.

“The Thai government’s lack of commitment means that regulations and programmes to prevent forced labour in the fishing industry are failing,” said HRW Asia Director Brad Adams. “International producers, buyers, and retailers of Thai seafood have a key role in ensuring that forced labour and other abuses come to an end.”

International response

Adams comments that: “The European Union should make access to its market for fishing products contingent on the end of forced labour in Thailand’s fishing industry”.

The lack of oversight means that consumers of Thai fish in Europe, North America and Japan may unintentionally be eating seafood caught by victims of human trafficking.

With a market value of $6.5 billion per year, Thailand is the world’s largest seafood exporter and sells most of its fish to US and Japanese importers. The UK is Europe’s largest importer of Thai seafood, buying £135 million in 2015.

After various media exposés in 2014-2015, the EU issued Thailand with a ‘yellow card’ warning over IUU fishing practices. HRW presented its findings to the European Parliament and there is a possibility that the EU could vote to ban seafood imports from Thailand as a result of the government’s failure to address human rights concerns.

“We [Human Rights Watch] are not calling for a ban on imports now, but if the Thai Government does not make sufficient progress in the coming year and labour conditions are as bad as they are now, we would start calling for a ‘red card’.”

In a response to the question of the impact of a ‘red card’ warning, Adams says: “They [Thai fishing association] would look for other markets obviously but the markets will be saturated so it will have a devastating effect on the Thai fishing industry and I think it would lead to concerted action by the Thai fishing association to clean up their act.”

Meanwhile, the US placed Thailand on its ‘Tier 2’ watch list—the second-worst rating—in its latest report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP).

While Thailand’s 2017 anti-trafficking law amendment included forced labour by means of debt bondage, a new independent law could provide better protection of the broader implications of forced labour beyond TIP.

Inspectors need better resources and training to help investigate abusive practices. During the inspection process, legal provisions should be enacted to protect workers who speak out against abuse and punish offenders. Finally, employers should be responsible for paying recruitment costs to prevent extortion, and employees should be made fully aware of their rights.