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Forced labor rampant in Thai fishing industry

Ate Hoekstra
January 23, 2018

Abuse, forced labor and trafficking continue in Thailand's fishing industry, says a new report. It comes almost three years after the EU threatened to ban Thai fishing products if Bangkok didn't get its act in order.

Fischerboot in Thailand
Image: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Cambodian Chan Kong Kea worked as a fisherman for almost ten years, while his wife worked in fish processing. He earned 10,000 baht per month (€256, $287), but only received that money at the end of the year.

"This means that if you leave your job before the year is over, you won't get paid anything. Not even when you have to leave because of sickness or because of a family situation."

Kong Kea never signed a contract and worked 13 to 14 hours on an average day. "But sometimes I worked for almost 30 hours in a row before I was allowed to take rest."

In the fish processing things weren't any better, his wife Em Samphors said, who earned between 150 and 300 baht per day (€3.85 to €7.69). "When the boat arrived at 8 p.m., we were often working until 2 p.m. We worked 7 days per week, and sometimes there was no time to sleep."

A drop in the ocean

These accounts are by no means isolated. Many employed by the Thai fishing industry face similarly terrible working conditions.  

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on Tuesday noted that the Thai government has made improvements in reducing labor abuses in its domestic fishing industry since 2015, but many of the problems persist.

The report is scathing about the conditions of tens of thousands of fishermen in Thailand, most of them poor migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

It notes, for example, that most of the fishermen face extremely long working days, are often prevented from changing employers and often receive a salary below the minimum wage.

Often salaries are only being paid once or twice per year, which forces the fishermen to continue to work, the report underlined.

A Myanmar migrant worker sorting fish for sale at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand
A Myanmar migrant worker sorting fish for sale at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon province, ThailandImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Yongrit

Nothing new

In 2014 and 2015, The Associated Press and The Guardian revealed that migrants were often being tricked to work in Thailand's fishing industry.

Once they start working they are treated as slaves, many experiencing severe beatings and even killings.

In response, the US downgraded Thailand in its annual Trafficking in Persons report to Tier 3, the lowest possible status.

In April 2015, the EU issued a "yellow card," and warned Thailand that if it didn't solve the problems the export of fishing products to the EU could be banned. In 2016, these exports were valued at €427 million.

'More needs to be done'

After the warning, Thailand implemented new regulations and monitoring tools, which helped to end some of the worse abuses, such as the killing of fishermen who are out at sea. But often the monitoring fails, as well as the labor inspections, HRW said in the report.

It noted, for example, that the Thai authorities had so far conducted inspections of 474,334 fishery workers, but not a single case of forced labor had been identified.

Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, told DW that the Thai ministry of labor should do more to protect the fishermen.

"But the ministry is under pressure from fishing associations that are pushing back and who keep saying that there are no problems anymore," Adams said.

"The fishing industry is up in arms. Because this would mean that now they have to pay the minimum wage, and pay a monthly salary to the fisherman into a bank account," he added.

Papop Siamhan, the project coordinator of the anti-labour trafficking project at the Human Rights and Development Foundation in Bangkok, said that his organization continues to receive complaints about labor abuses.

"The situation isn't quite yet as it should be."

Fishing boats dock near the shore at resort island of Koh Samui, Surat Thani province, southern Thailand
Fishing boats dock near the shore at resort island of Koh Samui, Surat Thani province, southern ThailandImage: picture alliance/dpa/R.Yongrit

Trafficking the key issue

Part of the problem is the widespread trafficking. Fishing vessels often use brokers to find workers in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. While exploitation in this trafficking process is rampant, those who are behind it are rarely being held accountable, say activists.

Over the past years only a handful of trafficking-related arrests were made, Adams said.

"There's impunity on both sides of the border. The brokers have their relatives and connections and the fishing vessel owner also has his connections," he added.

Siamhan believes the implementation of new laws and policies should be improved. "The Thai government needs to make employers and migrant workers comprehend about the laws and policies," he said.

The HRW report stresses that the EU can play a key role in pushing Thailand to solve the problems.

"The EU needs to redouble the pressure on Thailand. It has given Thailand a yellow card, but if an export ban is required to really improve things, then so be it," Adams said.

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