Let's respect worker rights
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Let's respect worker rights

If there are any "achievements" the military government can claim and boast about for its performance during the past three years, its effort to clean up the country's fishing and seafood processing industries is one of them.

After receiving a "yellow card" on the country's marine exports from the European Union in April 2015 due to reported severe rights abuses against migrant workers in the sectors, especially forced labour on fishing trawlers branded as "modern slavery", the government swiftly responded to the issues fearing Thailand could face a total ban from EU markets if there is no reform of the industries.

Since then, the government has introduced new regulations and set up a command centre to root out illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Clearly, there has been some positive progress. But more still needs to be done, especially when it comes to the protection of labour rights of workers who come from our neighbouring countries.

A recent survey by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reveals that several regulations the government has set for the industries have resulted in progress in some areas. Among 434 workers interviewed in March and April last year, only 2% of them reported physical violence. The survey, however, does not cover workers on long-haul fishing boats, where severe abuses were previously found.

Obviously, there are still persistent problems reflected by the survey. For instance, more than half of them have seen their wages deducted by their employers for expenses the bosses are obligated to cover. About half of female workers were paid lower than the minimum wage. There have been increases in incidents involving deception in recruiting or contracting, salary withholding and retention of identity documents of workers.

In his recent trip to Samut Sakhon, the hub of the seafood processing industry, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asked the public to be patient over IUU fishing which has affected Thai exports, saying the government is trying to eliminate it.

His deputy, Gen Chatchai Sarikulya, also insisted that the government has turned its attention back to the issue not only to get the EU's yellow card lifted, but also to ensure the sustainability of Thailand's marine resources.

But the response to the issue could be more effective if attention went beyond the traditional attempts to protect the industry from facing a ban from the EU market and to preserve marine resources. The government needs to improve its approach to the management of migrant workers in all sectors, by first seriously acknowledging the rights of migrant workers and then mobilising government resources to protect their rights particularly those involving labour standards and law.

The government's mindset on migrant labour management, as reflected in the recently revised decree on the issue, merely got stuck in strict worker registration and punishments for the failure of any employers and employees to follow the regulation.

Instead, it should send a strong message to businesses owners and operators that human rights violations and abuses of labour rights against any migrant workers are not tolerated, the same as they aren't for Thai workers.

It should set and enforce penalties on such rights violations and abuses and ensure there is a mechanism in place for these workers to file complaints. In fact, there should be proactive inspections by authorities. Retention of their work permits and other documents or unfair deduction or withholding of their wages must be punishable by law.

More importantly, the government must legalise decent work conditions for migrant workers. It should clearly stipulate work hours, health and safety and other standards for these employees in the industries.

There are more than 600,000 migrant workers contributing to the country's 100-billion-baht fishing and seafood processing sectors. They are vital economic forces. If the government wants to protect the industry and the resources, it should start by acknowledging dignity and protecting rights of these workers.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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