By Steve Trent
“The captain shouted at me; saying that he could kill me, that he doesn’t care and that I am only Burmese.”
Tun Thet Soe – escaped victim of trafficking
This account from Tun Thet Soe of his time as a forced labourer aboard a Thai fishing vessel, is just one of countless abuses that EJF has uncovered and documented in our three years investigating illegal fishing in Thailand’s seafood sector.
Khun Tun’s remembrances get to the heart of what Thailand’s seafood slaves face every day; they have no rights, no voice, and no hope of making change.
Thailand’s seafood sector employs more than 800,000 people. Its exports are valued at over US$5.5 billion annually, making Thailand the world’s third largest exporter of seafood.
But Thai waters are some of the most over-fished on the planet. Faced with declining catches and rising fuel costs, vessels need to sail out further – often illegally into other nations’ territory – and stay longer at sea, and the use of forced, bonded and slave labour by unscrupulous vessel operators has become common place.
The brutality facing these forced and slave labourers is unimaginable. They spend months or years at sea, receive low or no wages and face daily threats of intimidation, violence and even murder at the hands of vessel captains or the boat owners “enforcers”.
In on United Nations study 59% of migrant workers interviewed on Thai vessels report witnessing a murder aboard ship.
But the Thai labour system continues to work against these victims. Under the country’s current Labour Relations Act, migrant workers are banned from creating or holding a leadership role within a labour union, effectively leaving vulnerable workers silenced.
This legislation not only leaves migrant workers at the mercy of these brutal regimes; it also undermines the positive steps the Thai government has taken to tackle the challenges facing its fisheries.
If Thailand is ever going to address human rights abuses in the seafood sector, EJF believes this labour law must be reformed and that the government must implement the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) conventions (C87 and C98) establishing legal protections for all migrant workers to form unions and engage in union activities.
Such moves would create a space for migrant works to have a voice; a chance to protect their own rights.
Meanwhile, as we welcome the news that the ILO’s Convention 188 – specifically focused on workers in the fishing sector – now has enough country support to come into force next year, and we most strongly urge and recommend that the Thai government also ratifies and implements this measure to further protect the rights of workers on its fishing vessels.
Taking these steps would be a significant achievement. They would go a long way to proving a commitment to the protection of the human rights of vulnerable workers, and address the abuses plaguing Thailand’s seafood sector.
EJF believes these changes will be most effective when combined with other measures to address the underlying factors driving unsustainable fishing, such as prosecuting nationals involved in illegal practices, improved monitoring and inspection of vessels, and working with others in the region on building a collective approach to fisheries management.
If such measures are adopted, Thailand could see a day when environmental destruction and human rights abuses no longer blight its seafood sector. Failing to do so will leave the country open to continued international condemnation both from Governments and businesses, facing further sanctions on its fishing industry.