US urged to ban Thai fishing net suppliers using prison labour

An investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year found Thai prisoners were being forced to make fishing nets for private companies - including one that exported to the United States.

Inmates sit on the floor during an inspection  Thailand
Inmates sit on the floor during an inspection visit in the long-term sentence zone inside Klong Prem high-security prison in Bangkok, Thailand July 12, 2016. Image: Reuters/ Jorge Silva

A coalition of human rights groups is urging the US government to ban imports of fishing nets from two major Thai suppliers, following a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation into the use of forced prison labour.

December’s report found inmates at some Thai prisons were being forced to make fishing nets for private companies - including one that exported to the United States - under threat of punishment including beatings and delayed release.

“This is just one of many examples of how multinational corporations scour the globe to source the lowest-priced products, but absolve themselves of responsibility for the human rights abuses their race-to-the bottom engenders,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, executive director of the Global Labor Justice - International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF).

The labour rights organisation and fellow members of the Seafood Working Group – a coalition of 31 Thai and international civil society groups – submitted a petition last week to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

It called for a halt to imports of nets that may have been produced using prison labour by Thailand’s Khon Kaen Fishing Net (KKF) and Dechapanich Fishing Net.

Dechapanich did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

KKF said it would sever ties with any prisons found to be using forced labour, adding that it only sold prison-made fishing nets in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The company has not sold any products to the United States since 2020, said KKF’s chief marketing officer, Bordin Sereeyothin.

Prison work programme 

Under the US Tariff Act, goods made using forced or prison labour are barred from entering the country, and the CBP has the authority to issue detention orders against such goods and prevent their sale in markets, said spokesperson Justin Long.

Rights groups have in the past cited the law to press for the eradication of forced labour and labour involving prisoners in global supply chains.

From October 2020 to September 2021, the CBP detained more than 1,469 shipments valued at about $486 million over forced labour allegations, the agency said.

Long said the CBP does not comment on whether specific entities are under investigation, but undertakes “significant efforts to verify and validate the information provided by business entities, in accordance with its authorities”.

Trade database searches on the two Thai companies showed numerous shipments of fishing nets headed to buyers in the United States, including Trident Seafoods, the country’s largest seafood company, in 2020 and 2019.

Trident Seafoods did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

KKF’s Bordin said he feared a US ban on the company’s nets could cause job losses in Thailand.

“If a ban is enforced, I am concerned that it will affect Thai businesses and employment, and this might only stem from one to two prisons that acted inappropriately,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We do not promote harm or torture and will cut ties with any of the 42 prisons we have contracts with if forced labour is found,” he said.

He added that the company had asked Thailand’s Corrections Department to come up with a standard rate of pay for prisoners making fishing nets across the country as part of a prison work programme.

The Corrections Department was not immediately available for comment, but has previously denied allegations of forced labour.

Thailand’s prison work programme was intended to provide on-the-job training that could help inmates secure paid work after their release, according to promotional material from the Corrections Department.

But rights groups say it has become exploitative, citing low pay, harsh working conditions and the use of punishment when workers do not meet quotas.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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