Reversing reforms a 'grave error'

Reversing reforms a 'grave error'

In the aftermath of the March 24 general election, fishery reform in Thailand has come under threat -- this is potentially a grave error.

Thailand is a proud fishing nation. Seafood exports run to millions of tonnes, and in 2018 alone were worth US$6.8 billion (about 208.2 billion baht).

Just a few months ago, Thailand's "yellow card" warning over illegal fishing was lifted. The EU decision was made in recognition of the progress the country has achieved.

At the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), we can attest to that progress. Having worked closely with the Thai government since 2015, we know that Thailand has made significant advances in fighting both illegal fishing and the human rights abuses that often accompany it.

In 2018, Thailand became the first country in Asia to ratify the International Labour Organisation's convention which promises protection to the victims of forced labour and sanctions for the perpetrators (P29). This year, it followed this by ratifying the ILO's Work in Fishing Convention C188, which sets basic standards of work in the fishing industry, again the first country in Asia to do so.

Thailand has also increased transparency in the industry, installing monitoring systems to track all fishing vessels over 30 gross tonnes in size, and making its vessel licence list public. Boats deemed at risk of engaging in illegal fishing or human rights abuses are inspected by a network of "Port-in Port-out" centres, helping to prevent unscrupulous vessel operators from landing their fish in Thai ports. Out at sea, covert patrol vessels do important work intercepting illegally fishing boats.

But many fishing vessel owners are now calling for these laws to be relaxed, and political discourse has turned towards that possibility.

That would be an unforgivable mistake.

Before the reforms, Thailand's fisheries were the scene of grievous human rights abuses. Migrant workers were commonly subjected to excruciating days at sea with only a few hours rest, lack of food, beatings and even murder.

One man spoke to EJF of jumping overboard in desperation.

Yes, he could have been killed, he said, but he could no longer bear to stay trapped aboard the ship under such conditions.

The international public watched with horror as story after story of unthinkable abuse in Thailand's fisheries broke. Failure to act against these criminal operators led to global notoriety for Thailand's seafood sector, as one of the most abusive and destructive economic sectors in the world.

Fisheries mismanagement allowed the number of vessels to spike uncontrollably, often fishing illegally and using restricted and highly destructive fishing gear. As a result, fish stocks plummeted. Catch per unit effort -- a measure of the health of fish stocks -- fell by 92% in the Gulf of Thailand between 1961 and 2015.

In the Andaman Sea the picture was much the same, where it fell by 75% between 1966 and 2015. All this threatened the livelihoods of honest vessel owners and fishers.

Amid the current popularist, short-term rhetoric, the Future Forward Party is a notable voice of reason. Along with backing the reforms that are already in place, the party is calling for ILO measures guaranteeing freedom of association (Convention 87) and collective bargaining (Convention 98). These would finally grant migrant workers the same labour rights and protections given to domestic workers. They are also advocating for an extension of the inshore exclusion zone, giving small-scale fishers and inshore fish populations a crucial breathing space.

Entrenching the reforms and pushing for more is not only crucial to protect migrant workers and sustain Thailand's fish populations.

It is also vital to securing Thailand's future trade prospects in an international marketplace, which is increasingly focused on verifying the origin, traceability and sustainability of products.

The seafood industry is central to Thailand's economy. Protecting this economic powerhouse means protecting these reforms and pushing for more.

Any reversal could deny the industry access to major export markets -- leaving the whole country hamstrung.

Thailand should be a proud fishing nation, but returning to the taint of illegal fishing and human rights abuses will only bring shame.

Steve Trent is Environmental Justice Foundation's Executive Director.


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