EJF releases report on the continued abuse of trafficked migrants in Thailand's fishing industry

4 March, 2014

Slavery at Sea: The Continued Plight of Trafficked Migrants in Thailand's Fishing Industry, a new report and film launched today, reveals new evidence of human trafficking and the routine use of violence in the Thai fishing industry and inaction on the part of the Government to identify and prosecute criminals, corrupt officials and unscrupulous business operators, or to enforce measures to regulate fishing fleets and recruitment practices.

Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world with its international reach making human trafficking and exploitation in the sector a serious global issue. EJF's new Slavery at Sea report argues that insufficient progress is being made by Thailand to suppress and prevent human trafficking in its fishing industry. It makes the case for the US State Department to consider downgrading Thailand to Tier 3 - the lowest ranking possible - in its forthcoming 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

EJF's 2014 investigations have found that endemic corruption, poor enforcement, inadequate victim support, unacceptable working conditions and deficient migration policy have not been addressed.

A 21 year old Burmese migrant interviewed by EJF in 2014 reports that he was promised a “good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand” before being trafficked into the country. On 11 March 2013 he and 36 other Burmese migrants began a journey that for many would lead to being sold onto Thai fishing vessels. Three travelers were lost along the way including an elderly man who was allegedly murdered for refusing to go on.

This trafficking victim reports being transported with five others in a marked police car, driven by men in plain clothes, before being forced onto a fishing vessel in Samae San, in the Chonburi province of Thailand, in March 2013. He was compelled to work on the boat for ten months without pay before he managed to escape. He and his fellow crew suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat's captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf:

“I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored and he hit me from behind. It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious and he smashed my face against the ice.”

The Myanmar Association of Thailand (MAT), one of EJF's local partners, reported that in the period between January 2013 and February 2014, they were involved in 29 individual rescue operations, rescuing a total of 201 trafficked migrants from Thai fishing vessels.

A Thai interpreter who has worked on cases involving human trafficking onto fishing boats for over a decade, revealed to EJF that business owners, the police, shelter staff, court officials and even judges routinely pressure victims of human trafficking to drop their cases and return home.

Slavery at Sea revisits a case of 14 men rescued from a port in Kantang in March 2013 following months of exploitation, abuse and violence aboard a Thai fishing vessel including threats of murder (first documented in EJF's 2013 Sold to the Sea report).

By returning to this still live case, EJF presents firsthand accounts of the experience of trafficking victims from within the Thai system and an ongoing example of the Government's failure to support victims or facilitate an effective judicial process against perpetrators of trafficking. A year on, the victims interviewed by EJF told of their frustration at the slow legal process, confusion over the exclusion of the wealthy boat owner from the case, their lack of legal 

support or interpretation services and their now overwhelming desire to return home, even if it means the perpetrators escape justice.

“If we go home by ourselves, they said they are going to arrest us. This is why they recorded our addresses… We don't dare go home on our own but they won't send us back either.”

Khin Zaw Win, rescued from Kantang in March 2013

The Burmese broker connected to the Kantang case, who is reported to have been responsible for the murder of 40 migrant workers, was arrested following the publication of EJF's Sold to the Sea report. However there has been no action against the boat owner or the local officials who are alleged to have been involved. A senior officer in the Royal Thai Police involved in the Kantang case in 2013 revealed to EJF this year that he received phone calls from numerous influential individuals urging him not to investigate the local businessman whose pier and fishing boats were implicated in the case.

EJF also spoke to a senior officer in the Thai Immigration Bureau who said that inspectors tasked with identifying trafficking victims regularly used pier gang masters to communicate with migrant workers, despite them often being key components of the networks of brokers, business owners and corrupt local officials involved in trafficking onto fishing vessels.

Compelling new evidence was discovered exposing a link between over-fishing, resulting from poor fisheries management, and human trafficking and labour abuses onboard boats. Reduced catches are forcing operators to fish further away and for longer periods of time. This emerging trend means inspections are even less likely and one boat owner told EJF that workers were being transferred between boats at sea in order to avoid inspections in port and prevent them from escaping.

The EU imported more than $1.15 billion (€835.5 million) worth of seafood from Thailand in 2012. EJF's Slavery at Sea report urges EU politicians to consider human trafficking in ongoing trade negotiations between the EU and Thailand.

The value of seafood imports by the United States from Thailand exceeded $1.6 billion in 2013. EJF is calling on the US State Department to consider downgrading Thailand to Tier 3 in its forthcoming 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Importantly, 2013 was the first year that a law limiting the number of years a country could be on the US State Department TIP report Tier 2 Watchlist came into effect. This law requires that Thailand is either upgraded to Tier 2 or downgraded to Tier 3 in the 2014 report due to be released in June.