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Unfair Pay, Labor Abuse Persist in Thailand’s Fishing Industry, UN Says

Wilawan Watcharasakwet
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Foreign workers unload a catch from a trawler at a pier in Pattani, Thailand, Nov. 1, 2016.
Pimuk Rakkanam/BenarNews

Labor abuse including unfair pay and deception still exist in Thailand’s fishing industry, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said Wednesday in a report that praised the government for implementing regulations to improve working conditions for migrants.

The report by the U.N. agency came almost three years after the European Union castigated Bangkok for “not taking sufficient measures” against illegal fishing and warned that it could face consequences, which could lead to a ban in its seafood imports.

The ILO report, “Ship to Shore Rights Project,” pointed out positives and negatives in the fishing industry.

“Since 2014, changes have been made to Thailand’s legal and regulatory framework that have contributed to positive developments,” the report said. “When the ILO compared responses to similar questions from the ILO 2013 survey on working conditions in Thai fishing … we found indications of progress.”

Thailand ranked fourth last year among global exporters of seafood, behind Vietnam, Norway and China. In 2017, the Thai fishing and seafood processing sectors employed more than 600,000 people, including 302,000 registered migrant workers, according to official statistics.

Reports in recent years of human and labor rights abuses committed in the Thai commercial fishing and seafood processing industries – particularly against migrant workers – triggered dramatic reactions, ILO said, apparently referring to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by the Associated Press (AP) in 2015.

The AP investigation turned the spotlight on the labor problem and uncovered severe rights abuses, including incidents of holding some workers in cages. The report contributed to the freeing of more than 2,000 men from Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, leading to more than a dozen arrests and changes in U.S. laws.

The ILO report said its survey found fewer reports of physical violence. It also said less than 1 percent of workers were younger than 18 and 43 percent of the interviewed workers reported having written contracts while some reported increases in wages.

“We want competitiveness in the global seafood trade to mean more than low price and high quality,” Graeme Buckley, ILO country director for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, told reporters. “We want it to mean decent work for all the industry’s workers – from the boat to the retailer.”

The survey was based on interviews with 434 foreign workers in small- and large-scale businesses, on- and off-shore, in 11 Thai provinces from March to April 2017. It covered recruitment practices, wages, hours worked, safety and health, support services, complaint mechanisms, living conditions, forced labor indicators and legal-compliance levels.

Shortcomings noted, threats issued

AP’s yearlong investigation led to the European Commission issuing a statement on April 21, 2015 that denounced Thailand’s shortcomings and threatened to ban its imports to the EU.

“Failure to take strong action against illegal fishing will carry consequences,” Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, said in the statement at that time.

The commercial fishing and seafood industries contributed 206.8 billion baht (U.S. $6.6 billion) to Thai exports in 2014. More than 57,000 migrant fishermen worked on about 6,700 Thai commercial fishing ships in 2017, according to official figures.

The ILO survey found that 34 percent of seafood industry workers receive less than the daily minimum wage of 300 baht (U.S. $9.50), while 24 percent of foreign fishermen said the ship owners sometimes held up their pay for 12 months or longer and 34 percent did not have access to their own identity documents.

The reactions and results of labor reform in Thailand are of interest to Cambodia and Myanmar – home to the vast majority of the foreign workers – and to buyers of Thai seafood, such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Tesco, Coles, Simplot, Migros, Mars and Nestlé, the ILO report said.

“Also watching closely are governments in the region as they attempt to take the measure of labor practices in their own fishing industries,” the report added.

Jakrin Jakkaphak, permanent secretary for the Thai labor ministry, said the ILO research was a collaborative effort among partners aiming to meet international standards.

“I’m very confident that the living and working condition of migrant workers is getting better compared to decades ago,” Jakrin told BenarNews. “The Thai government is working very hard to amend the laws to protect migrant worker rights in the same level with Thai labors.”

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