ILO finds progress in fixing Thai fishing industry abuses

ILO finds progress in fixing Thai fishing industry abuses

Migrant workers prepare for another fishing trip at a port in Samut Sakhon province, Jan 22, 2018.  (Reuters photo)
Migrant workers prepare for another fishing trip at a port in Samut Sakhon province, Jan 22, 2018. (Reuters photo)

A survey of working conditions in Thailand's fishing and seafood industry conducted by the UN's International Labour Organisation has found that new regulations resulted in progress in some areas, including less physical violence, but problems such as unfair pay and deception in contracting persist.

The European Union in April 2015 gave the kingdom a “yellow card” on its fishing exports, warning that it could face a total ban on EU sales if it didn't reform the industry. The military government responded by introducing new regulations and setting up a command centre to fight illegal fishing.

The ILO report released Wednesday on “Ship to Shore Rights” recommends that the government strengthen its legal framework, ensure effective enforcement, establish higher industry standards and enhance workers' skills, knowledge and welfare.

“We want competitiveness in the global seafood trade to mean more than low prices and high quality,” Graeme Buckley, ILO country director for Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, said at a news conference. “We want it to mean decent work for all the industry's workers, from the boat to the retailer.”

(Video YouTube/Ship To Shore Rights)

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press investigation in 2015-16 that uncovered severe rights abuses affecting migrant workers in Thailand's fishing and seafood industries helped turn an international spotlight on the problem and contributed to the freeing of more than 2,000 men from Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, more than a dozen arrests, amended US laws and lawsuits seeking redress.

The ILO said that changes in Thailand's legal and regulatory framework had contributed to positive developments since the group's last survey of workers in 2013.

It said only 6% of fishing boat workers in 2013 had a signed or written contract with their employers, but a study undertaken in 2017 found 43% of the respondents recalled signing a contract.

“Another possible sign of progress is the type of abuses reported,” said the ILO. “Although 12% of all workers surveyed this year reported harassment or verbal abuse -- and 7% faced threats of violence at work -- reports of physical violence were relatively few, at 2% of all workers surveyed.”

The AP investigation in 2015 had documented multiple cases of physical abuse and depravity.

The apparent gains for workers in the industry were offset somewhat by persistent abuses noted by the ILO.

“One third of workers reported being paid less than the legal minimum wage, before any deductions were made,” the report said. “As many as 53% of respondents cited deductions made to their monthly earnings.”

Evidence of forced labour “including deception in recruiting or contracting, wage withholding, and widespread identity document retention among fishers,” was another concern noted in the report.

(Video YouTube/HumanRightsWatch)

The ILO said it surveyed 434 workers in 11 Thai provinces in March-April 2017. The report said 125 Cambodians, 287 Burmese and 22 Thai nationals who worked either on fishing boats or in seafood packaging factories took part in the research, which asked their “personal demographics, how they were recruited, if they had a contract, what they earned, what their working conditions were like, hours worked, satisfaction with their accommodations, benefits received and how they reported grievances.”

It warned, however, that the survey's results should not be extrapolated to Thailand's entire fishing and seafood processing industry, because it was not statistically representative.

The ILO said it did not survey workers on long-haul fishing boats that go out to international waters, where abuses are more likely to take place, interviewing only those on short-haul fishing boats, at sea less than 30 days.

It said it was difficult to interview workers on long-haul boats and who work outside Thai waters because they return to port less frequently and there are now few Thai-flagged vessels engaged in long-haul fishing.

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