Warnings over new law to protect workers in Thai fishing industry

New legislation follows years of global scrutiny over abuse of Thai and migrant workers and mandates basic rights such as social security, medical care and rest periods.

thai fishing industry
Fishing boats at a harbour in Chonburi, Thailand. A London-based rights group said poor regulation of Thailand's fishing industry has led to the collapse of Thai fish stocks. Forced to stay longer at sea, operators have also resorted to slave labour. Image: Phollapat / Shutterstock.com

A new law to address abuses in Thailand’s multi-billion dollar fishing industry contains loopholes, labour rights campaigners said on Thursday, warning of difficulties in enforcement.

The legislation published on Wednesday follows years of global scrutiny over abuse of Thai and migrant workers and mandates basic rights such as social security, medical care and rest periods. It will come into effect in six months.

But campaigners said the government would struggle to enforce the legislation and raised concerns that it remains vague on how any benefits would be accessed.

“The new law does not mention that,” said Papop Siamhan, a project officer at the Human Rights Development Foundation. “We will have to wait for sub-regulations and there is no indication of when that will happen.”

The law implements the International Labour Organization (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention, which Thailand became the first country in Asia to ratify in January.

The convention puts the minimum age for workers on fishing boats at 16 years - two years below existing Thai labour law that says no one under 18 should be engaged in dangerous work.

The Thai government has huge difficulties in just getting the boat owners to pay monthly wages into bank accounts. How are they going to hold captains accountable for ensuring mandatory rest periods on the open seas?

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, Human Rights Watch

“Minors on fishing boats at sea is dangerous. The Thai government should not follow (the convention) in that instance,” Siamhan said.

“This needs to be clarified because it can create confusion among employers and also authorities looking to regulate.”

In 2015, Thailand - the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood - received a “yellow card” from the European Union after it was revealed that the industry was rife with human trafficking.

That prompted a major crackdown, including the discovery of jungle camps in southern Thailand where migrants - mostly Rohingya who had fled Myanmar - were sold to boat captains as slaves.

The European Union removed the “yellow card” - a threat to ban Thai imports - in January in light of efforts by Thailand to combat human trafficking and improve conditions for workers.

Activists said the new law, which applies to 300,000 migrant workers as well as Thais, was another step forward, but questioned the government’s ability to enforce it.

“The Thai government has huge difficulties in just getting the boat owners to pay monthly wages into bank accounts,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

“How are they going to hold captains accountable for ensuring mandatory rest periods on the open seas?” 

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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