A stiff new Thai law aimed at staving off a European Union (EU) ban on Thailand’s lucrative seafood industry mandates for the first time that its fisheries workforce be legalized.
Under this law, fishing boat operators can face jail time or other penalties if they fail to employ legally documented crewmembers, as well as register their vessels, equip them with less environmentally destructive nets, and report boat arrivals and departures from port, among other requirements.
“Most laborers in the fishing sector are foreigners, more than fifty thousand. Our task is to see how we can legalize all of them, to give them work permits,” Suwit Sumala, a permanent secretary at Thailand’s Labor Ministry said on a TV program broadcast earlier this week.
“If they are registered, we will know where they are, whom they are with and how to take care of them,” he added.
The Thai cabinet this week approved a decree instituting the law, and it will take effect once Thailand’s king endorses it.
According to a draft version of the new law obtained by BenarNews on Wednesday, violators can have their boats seized or licenses pulled, as well as face two-year prison terms or fines of up to 6 million baht (U.S. $168,800), depending on the infraction.
Red card looms
The government passed the new law in urgently trying to avoid a possible EU ban on Thai seafood products, after the European Commission gave Thailand six months to implement measures targeting illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing practices (IUU).
The “yellow card” period expired on Oct. 21, yet the EU has yet to publicize a deadline for when Thailand might receive a “red card,” which would trigger a European ban.
“Only if we came to the conclusion that there was no significant improvement of the situation, the Commission might decide to give a 'red card' to Thailand, which means the banning of all fish products, including canned fish,” Enrico Brivio, an EU spokesperson for Maritime Affairs, Fisheries, Environment, Health and Food Safety, told BenarNews in an email on Tuesday.
“[A] pre-identified country has 6 months to negotiate with the Commission and address its problems. This period for Thailand just came to an end at the end October. So now the Commission will assess the overall progress made and consider the way forward,” he said, noting that such a decision would “not be immediate.”
An EU delegation recently visited Thailand to get a clearer picture of Thai efforts to comply with the European standards, Brivio added.
Although EU officials gave no timeframe for possible future action, Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan last week told reporters that the EU had given Thailand till the end of December before it would make a decision.
Since receiving the yellow card warning in April, Thailand has made significant progress in raising its standards to meet the European ones, Prawit said.
The new law replaces the Fisheries Act, which the government adopted on April 28 in requiring commercial fishermen and fishing boat operators to meet the EU’s standards.
Wimol Chantarothai, the director-general of the Fisheries Department, who appeared alongside Suwit Sumala on the TV program that aired on Monday, said his agency faced two major tasks in implementing the new law.
“In order to manage fishing, we will control the number of fishing boats and frequency with which they are allowed to fish. We will address the overfishing issue, in which we need to limit the harvest as to avoid [doing damage to] resources,” Wimol said.
In addition, to demonstrate that Thailand does not sell seafood produced through exploitative labor, his department will ensure the traceability of the catches, Wimol said, referring to reported allegations that Thai seafood companies have employed foreign workers in slave-like conditions aboard fishing boats.
“From the catch to consumers, it is necessary for us to guarantee that the products are not harvested through illegal fishing,” he added.
Since the yellow card took effect on April 21, the government has grounded thousands of fishing boats that are unlicensed or outfitted with equipment that does not meet EU standards.
Crew members whose livelihoods depend on fishing have staged protests, particularly in Thailand’s restive Deep South, where fishing is a pillar of the local economy. Out of desperation, some have committed suicide.
In Pattani, one of the provinces in the region, as many as 3,000 fishing boats remained docked at local ports as a result of the government measures.
Provisions of the new law are too harsh, especially for fishermen who are not well versed in matters of law, Phubet Chanthanimi, president of the Fisheries Association of Thailand, told BenarNews.
“Ironically, if the government wants to live up to the EU standards, the law should not carry jail terms or mandate boat seizures,” he said.
Nasueroh contributed to this report.