As Thailand prepares to extend work permits for 11,000 foreign migrant workers, including many in the fishing industry, a Human Rights Watch official called on the government Tuesday to outlaw forced labor.
Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director for the global rights watchdog, praised the Thai government for ratifying an International Labor Organization (ILO) protocol on forced labor earlier this year, but he urged officials to pass a standalone law criminalizing such workplace practices.
“We’re worried the Thai government is hesitating to fulfill its commitment to pass such a law in the face of unprincipled opposition by the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT) and other employer groups who don’t want to take responsibility for forced labor practices against migrant workers from Burma [Myanmar], Cambodia, and elsewhere,” he told BenarNews.
At a news conference in Bangkok on Tuesday morning, Robertson joined members of the Migrant Working Group, a coalition of NGOs focused on health, education and labor rights to call for government action. Last week, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan announced that the government would extend for two years the work permits set to expire at the end of September.
In January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report and video challenging the government over deplorable conditions for migrant workers in the nation’s fishing industry. The 134-page report based on more than 200 interviews, spelled out how migrants – many of them from Myanmar and Cambodia – could be forced to work on fishing boats, prevented from changing employers, have their pay held or not be paid a minimum wage.
But NFAT Chairman Mongkol Sukcharoenkana said a new law was not needed.
“We in fisheries sector do not care about the claim about victimized laborers or the call for such law because we have solved those problems already,” Mongkol told BenarNews.
He added that about 10,600 fishing boats were active in Thailand, down from more than 42,000 when Thailand received a yellow card warning from the European Union (EU) in April 2015.
That warning meant Thailand could face a ban on exporting seafood to the EU because of unregulated practices in the fishing industry.
Vice Admiral Wannapol Klomkaew, deputy secretary of the government’s Command Center for Combatting Illegal Fishing, also played down the need for such a law, citing prosecutions of cases involving the mistreatment of foreign workers.
Since mid-2015, the courts have punished defendants in 42 of 88 cases regarding abusive or enforced labor practice in fishing sector and human trafficking, he told BenarNews without elaborating.
“We have PI-PO (port-in port-out) centers that examine the fishing boats so there is no place for illegal laborers. ... We track employers with bad records,” Wannapol said.
Despite such comments from officials, Robertson said the country needed to protect workers.
“The decision point is now because Thailand needs to pass a forced labor law before the end of this year, or face the scorn of the international community,” he said.
“Some employer federations are claiming that if Thailand passes a criminal law against forced labor then foreign investors will not make investments here. My question to Thailand is why in the world would you want an investment from a company that wants to use forced labor? It’s better to tell that kind of investor to go somewhere else.”