A new report reveals that child laborers in Thailand's multibillion dollar shrimp and seafood industries are exposed to more workplace hazards than those in other industries, and are twice as likely to be injured.
A recently released investigation into the working conditions of child laborers in Thailand reveals that a much higher proportion of children in the Southeast Asian country's fishing industry worked with fire, gas, or flames (25.9 percent), compared to other industries (12.7 percent).
Published in Bangkok on September 14, the study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and The Asia Foundation also found that 23 percent of children in the shrimp and seafood industries were working in wet and dirty conditions. At the same time, about 20 percent of them reported workplace injuries - compared to 8.4 percent in other industries.
"Child labor is truly unacceptable in the 21st century," said Maurizio Bussi, officer-in-charge of the ILO's Country Office for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. "Unfortunately, it remains a symptom of existing labor market governance challenges, coupled with a lack of genuine alternatives for vulnerable workers and their families to freely avail of," he added.
A crucial industry
The fisheries sector is of vital importance to Thailand's economy, and the country is one of the world's top ten fishing nations in terms of total catch. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the nation ranked third (behind China and Norway) in 2010 in the top-ten exporters of fish and fisheries products, with a value of $7 billion (up from US$4 billion in 2000).
Thailand is a world-leading supplier of canned tuna - with annual revenue estimated to be around $1.1 billion, accounting for 53 percent of the global canned tuna trade, according to the ILO. Its shrimp production and processing industries generate more than $2 billion per year.
And given the labor-intensive nature of the industry, it also attracts a large number of migrant workers - and their families - from neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Cambodia. Overall, the ILO estimates that the fisheries sector generates employment for more than two million workers in fishing, processing, and related economic sectors.
It is estimated that the canned tuna processing industry alone employs approximately 200,000 workers throughout its value chain, with approximately 60 percent of them believed to be migrant workers, primarily from Myanmar. Meanwhile, the shrimp industry employs 700,000 workers, 80 percent of whom are migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, said the ILO.
Trafficked and enslaved
But Thailand's high use of migrant laborers, many of whom work illegally after being trafficked into the country, has drawn global attention to the labor conditions in the fisheries industry. In fact, following revelations of modern-day slavery and maltreatment of migrants, Thailand has been at the lowest rank in the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report (TIP) since 2014 - on the same level as Zimbabwe and North Korea.
According to the joint report, research commissioned by the ILO found that nearly 1 in 10 children under 18 work in the shrimp and seafood industries, and that migrant children toil for longer hours on average than Thai children (six hours per week longer). Moreover, only a quarter of these laborers - aged 15-17 - are said to be aware of child labor laws, and nearly 65 percent of them do not enjoy the legal protection of a contract.
The recent study also found that one-third of migrant children in these sectors do not attend school, due to a combination of challenges and constraints that include household debt, childcare commitment for siblings, and parental mobility.
"While all children in Thailand have access to education, regardless of their registration status, the children of undocumented migrants were less likely to enroll in school, with low incomes leaving families less able to meet the supplementary expenses involved," said the authors of the report.
They call on the nation's government "to provide equal treatment with regard to labor protection... regardless of nationality and legal status," and on international buyers to help implement international labor standards.
A widespread issue
Human trafficking and forced labor are acute problems in the fisheries industry but they also affect other economic sectors across Southeast Asia such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction and domestic work. Annette Lyth, Regional Project Manager at the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons, explains that as supply chains have become increasingly internationalized, they have also become more difficult to monitor and therefore easier for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of.
"As labor migration is an important factor in economies in the region, it is migrant workers who are often vulnerable to these conditions and find it more difficult to report their situation to authorities," Lyth told DW.
In 2012, the ILO estimated that some 20.9 million people around the world, including children, were in conditions of forced labor, which the international body defines as largely equivalent to human trafficking. A 2014 ILO research indicated that the related illegal profits are in excess of $150 billion, making human trafficking one of the largest criminal industries in the world.
A never-ending debt
UN expert Lyth explains that in some cases people are approached by a broker, who could be a friend, a family member or an unknown person, who promises to find them well paid jobs in another country. People may also be actively looking for opportunities to work abroad and contact a recruitment agency to help them in their search.
Often the trafficked persons will enter into a situation of debt as they do not have enough money to pay for travel and other related costs. But, as Lyth points out, the debt will be considerably larger than the actual cost. The trafficked persons therefore have to enter into a situation which can be described as bonded labor while they supposedly work off their debt.
However, said the UN expert, they often never manage to pay back their debt as the amount owed increases over time, as while they work, they are supposedly provided with food and accommodation that must also be paid for. They, thus, enter a situation of debt and forced labor which is perpetuated.
According to the UN, the Asia-Pacific records an estimated 11.7 million trafficked people, by far the highest figure of any region in the world. And the Greater-Mekong Sub-region encompassing Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam features some of the most extensive flows of migration and human trafficking.