Govt sincerity on migrant rights faces fishing pact test
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Govt sincerity on migrant rights faces fishing pact test

It has been one year since Thailand's last debacle on migrant worker policy. Yet, Thailand finds itself once again at the crossroads where domestic constituents are debating whether to advance the protection of migrant workers in the fishery sector.

Thailand is the world's third-largest seafood exporter. An international storm of criticism in the past few years has scrutinised exploitative labour practices in Thailand that make fishery workers, mostly migrants from neighbouring countries, vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage.

In 2014, the US State Department singled out Thailand for being among the worst offenders. Four years later, the US continues to highlight, "Trafficking in the fishing industry remains a significant concern", and Thailand investigated "significantly fewer cases" of labour trafficking in the fishing sector -- seven cases in 2017 compared to 46 in 2016.

Similarly, starting in April 2015, the European Union (EU) issued Thailand a "yellow" card warning for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, putting pressure on Thailand to clean up the industry or risk subjecting Thai fishery products to trade sanctions. Thailand has not been let off the hook as the issue of forced labour remained high on the agenda during the EU delegation's recent trip to Samut Sakhon province, the central hub of Thai fishing industries, in July 2018.

Such criticisms no doubt created adverse impacts on Thai seafood exports, which dropped from US$7 billion in 2013 to US$5.8 billion in 2017. Moreover, reports on labour rights abuses further discourage both Thai and migrant workers from working in the industry. As a result, a severe labour shortage is imminent despite the talks with migrant labour-sending countries in August this year. Thailand has not succeeded in fully securing additional labour to fill this gap. To solve the problems of human trafficking and labour shortages, the Thai government has publicised numerous steps to reverse the situation, thus attempting to make fishing employment appear more attractive to prospective migrants. In its most recent initiative, the Thai government announced its intention to ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention No.188 (Work in Fishing Convention, 2007), which was originally pledged for June 2018.

If ratified, the convention would extend protection to all fishermen in any commercial fishing vessels. This would then grant an important set of rights to fishery workers such as minimum hours of rest, provision of employment contracts in a language comprehensible to the worker, prohibition of recruitment fees, payment of wages, access to social security and medical care, as well as appropriate accommodation, food and water.

These rights would unquestionably help prevent migrant workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers, therefore reducing instances of human trafficking. However, recently there has been domestic opposition by employer associations. While some recommended watering down the protection, others demanded the government to reject the convention altogether.

In contrast, a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) speaking on the behalf of migrant workers has already voiced their objection to the call made by employer associations. The coalition's ultimate goal is to secure those rights as outlined in the convention.

Thailand is again at a critical juncture. The domestic debates seem to stall the ratification process. Nevertheless, it is important to note that CSOs in the meantime can push the Thai government to pursue the protection for migrant workers through existing, however piecemeal, laws and regulations that have already granted some rights similar to those contained in the convention.

Such existing laws include the prohibition of fees collected from migrant workers, as stipulated in the 2017 Royal Ordinance on Foreign Workers Management; the guarantee of wage payment, rest hours and employment contracts as specified in the 2014 and 2018 Ministerial Regulations Concerning Labour Protection in Sea Fishery Work; and, the well-being of fishermen, as outlined in the 2016 Ministerial Regulation on the Occupational Safety, Health and Welfare System of Fisheries Workers.

Although these regulations are prescribed with some exceptions depending on the size and volume of the fishing vessel, there is no justification for any delay in the effective enforcement of such laws. Since early 2018, the Thai government has been eager to officially declare the country "IUU-free". Without a doubt, this should also mean Thai seafood are free from exploited labour. The adoption of the convention, and its effective implementation, will go a long way in helping Thailand achieve this goal.

The final decision on the convention ratification rests with the Thai government. This will send a clear message to the international community regarding the sincerity of Thailand's latest reforms on migrant worker protection.

Ruji Auethavornpipat, PhD Candidate, Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

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