BANGKOK – Migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar urged to sign contracts they cannot read in order to work in Thailand’s fishing fleet, new study finds, undermining efforts to root out abuse from sector worth billions of dollars in this Southeast Asian country.
Thailand is one of the largest producers of fish and seafood in the world, with global brands such as John West and Chicken of the Sea.
Authorities have struggled for several years to clean up an industry riddled with abuse, however, after grim revelations of human trafficking in Thais and migrant workers, forced labor, defaults, beatings and even murders on fishing boats.
All of this contributed to the fact that the US State Department placed Thailand in the worst possible ranking – Level 3 – in its 2015 Annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), as well as threats from the Union. European Commission to suspend seafood imports for allegations of illegal overfishing and overfishing. .
However, the Thai government’s efforts to register all workers with contracts, ID cards and electronic payments to ensure wages are paid rather than deferred – alongside broader lawsuits against human traffickers – helped the kingdom to level 2.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha said he hopes his country will be raised to number one – in line with US standards – after a massive fishing industry surveillance campaign, including spot inspections and electronic tags to track unscrupulous boat owners. .
The latest TIP report is expected to be released in the coming weeks; but an ITF-Fishers’ Rights Network investigation shows that basic legal protections for workers are still not respected.
Of the 520 fishermen surveyed in Thai ports between March and June 2021, the FRN said only a tiny fraction had even seen their contracts translated into their native language.
“A shocking 89% of fishermen had not seen their contract translated or explained in a language they could understand,” said Jon Hartough, ITF-FRN Thailand project manager.
“Very often fishermen are recruited from rural Myanmar and Cambodia… it’s a verbal contract when told what the conditions will be. But when they sign the document, we don’t know what the conditions are, they are signing, ”he added.
“This is important… because of how it manifests itself in working conditions. ”
UN: Thailand’s fishing industry corrects abuses
Thailand’s fishing and seafood industry has improved its working conditions, including less physical violence, but problems such as unfair wages and deception in contracts persist, according to an investigation by the Organization International Labor Organization. The European Union in 2015 gave Thailand a “yellow card” on its fishing exports, warning it could face an EU sales ban if it does not reform the industry.
Vulnerable fishermen are often low-skilled and in desperate need of income – a situation made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as Myanmar’s economic collapse following the February 1 coup.
“Burmese and Khmer fishermen still face serious problems such as theft of wages, lack of adequate food or potable water on board, debt bondage, withholding of documents and other labor abuses.” , according to Ye Thwe, president of FRN and former fisherman.
“The Thai government’s commitments are as thin as the paper they are written on. Labor law violations are still rife and contracts are not properly enforced, ”he said, adding that fishermen often report late or incomplete payments, unsafe conditions at sea and deliberately misleading contracts. – where they exist.
The Fisheries Department says it has translated government guidelines into the languages of fishermen, so they know their rights under Thailand’s tightened laws.
“The DOF prepared a manual for commercial fishermen (…) in easy-to-understand language and distributed it to fishermen, in order to enhance their knowledge and understanding of legal guidelines,” Mesak Pakdeekong told reporters. , Director General of the Fisheries Department. In early June.
Meanwhile, the authorities have released a multilingual application “PROTECT-U” to help victims of trafficking to seek urgent help in safety.
Although not cited in the FRN study, major seafood companies, including Thai Union, owner of Chicken of the Sea, say they have made great strides in cleaning up their supply chains and respecting strictly government rules.
But labor rights groups say the recruitment system is subject to abuse.
Brokers roam poor rural areas of Southeast Asia to persuade desperate workers to go to sea for long periods of time, often away from contact with authorities or their families.
As profit margins are squeezed in overfished seas, experts say unscrupulous boat owners or captains who mobilize workers maintain agreed wages or instead promise a percentage of the catch as payment that never materializes.
Yet the supply of labor has increased since the pandemic, with entire communities out of work for months.
A Thai fisherman from the landlocked farming region of northeast Isaan, who has already been deprived of his salary but is preparing to return to sea, said the poorest had few options as the pandemic crushed their income.
“The guys in my village always go to sea,” the fisherman told VOA News, on condition of anonymity. “We know the risks, but we are ready to play our lives. Staying at home can also be bad; we can be hungry.