In the wake of renewed revelations of slavery aboard Thai-run fishing vessels in Indonesian waters and the discovery of people-smuggling camps and migrant mass graves near the Malaysia-Thailand border, Thailand’s ruling military junta has stepped up efforts to crack down on human trafficking and illegal fishing.
Further prodding has come from the EU’s threat to boycott Thai seafood if the country doesn’t clean up its act and from Thailand’s inclusion for a second straight year on the lowest rung of the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, released in July.
Skeptics, though, say the junta must do more to address what a torrent of investigations has identified as widespread slavery and illegality in the industry.
“They haven’t really looked into where the problems are,” asserted Patima Tangpratyakoon of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LRPN), an NGO in Samut Sakhon province. “They’re just doing what they need to do to be able to continue to export fish.”
In March, the Associated Press published the first in an ongoing series of articles into Thai-run slave boats operating around the remote Indonesian island of Benjina and the link between slave-harvested seafood and major distributors and retailers in the West. The revelations came at a time when the Indonesian government was escalating a campaign against illegal foreign fishing vessels in its waters and the particulars of a cross-border trade in Rohingya and Bangladeshis, many of whom have been sold onto fishing boats via Thai jungle camps, were coming into fuller focus.
In April, the EU gave Thailand six months to curb illegal fishing in its seafood industry or face trade sanctions, with EU Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella citing “serious shortcomings in Thailand’s fisheries monitoring, fisheries control and sanctioning systems.”
“It’s the fishing fleets’ ability to operate outside the law that allows them to exploit and abuse fishermen with impunity on board their vessels,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
Over the years, depletion of fish stocks has driven Thai vessels farther and farther into foreign waters, where they often fish illegally, skimming billions of dollars in stolen catches from neighboring countries. The longer distances and time spent at sea has meant higher costs for petrol and machinery, increasing the appeal of cheap or even free labor from workers trafficked onto boats. Former captives have spoken of being forced to work 18-20 hour days and experiencing physical and emotional abuse.
Paul Buckley, regional technical coordinator of the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT) in Bangkok, said “abuses in the industry have become pretty deeply entrenched over a number of years, which is pretty clear from all the reports.”
The exposés, he added, “have raised the profile of the issue to the degree that the government has to do something about it.”
Under Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Thai junta has pledged to tackle illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing as well as human trafficking. It has laid out a number of ministerial-level provisions on working conditions and on the need for written contracts and proper registration of workers in the seafood industry.
A new Fisheries Act, passed in January, requires boats to hold legal fishing equipment, licenses, registration and navigation systems to let them to be tracked by the authorities. It also mandates inspections of vessels and regular reviews of working conditions. Enforcement of boat registration has been cited as remiss, spurring a “ghost” fleet of unregistered pirate ships that fly false flags and plunder foreign waters.
More on this story at Mongabay.