Worker rights abuses at sea still a live issue
Working conditions on fishing boats fall through the crackdown net
The military government has been commended for cracking down on illegal fishing activities following a series of warnings by the European Union but is taking flak from NGOs for failing to seriously curb violations of workers' rights and poor working conditions on fishing trawlers.
Even academics who support the regime's moves to handle labour issues in the fishing sector in accordance with the law and better educate the public on human rights have questioned whether the government's policies are sustainable.
Meanwhile, the Labour Ministry said it wants to see the public, private, and civic sectors work together closely to stamp out human trafficking in the labour market.
Sompong Sakaew, at the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), said authorities put too much focus on verifying the accuracy of documents such as working contracts and workers' forms for identification.
From his experience of observing some of the nation's Port In-Port Out (PIPO) control centres, Mr Sompong said officials should be asking more in-depth questions to learn about true working conditions, including the wages paid, to see which issues need to be addressed.
"The workers appeared reluctant to answer officials' questions as some of the sessions took place in front of the trawler boat owners or with the crew heads nearby," he said.
"They will only talk about important issues with people they feel safe and comfortable with, and who may be able to help them," he added.
Mr Sompong said authorities should find new communication channels to reach out to the workers and inform them which organisations they can contact for help, and how to do so.
Mechanisms should also be put in place to ensure workers' rights are protected and the laws properly enforced, he said.
His foundation is now working with several informal labour groups and community-based organisations to educate people working in this industry about their rights while listening to their concerns.
One pattern the LPN has noticed is the authorities are focusing on cases of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing but doing little to help improve working conditions on the boats.
In fact, their work may be making life harder for many crew members as the crackdown has led many to quit their jobs, leaving more work for those who remain, Mr Sompong said.
But workers do stand to benefit from the Labour Ministry's plan to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No.187), he said.
He said he hoped the ratification proves more than just window dressing to placate workers or earn the nation "a better rank in future human trafficking reports".
The government introduced several new policies on labourers six months ago but the fruits of these have not yet been documented, said Yongyuth Chalamwong, a research director on labour development with the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).
These include new rules on hiring migrant labourers and tougher punishment for the illegal hiring of workers under 18, Mr Yongyuth said, adding the regime is working more closely with NGOs to tackle labour issues.
The US government issues a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report each year as a diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on this sensitive issue.
In the 2016 report Thailand received a "Tier 2 Watch List" rating.
Mr Yongyuth said even if this status remains unchanged in the 2017 report the country has still done well to be upgraded from Tier 3.
"For me, it's more important to focus on good practices, continuity and sustainability," he said.
As the state organisations working to protect labour rights have limited personnel, it is crucial to promote collaboration with local communities, NGOs and other related agencies to connect with workers, especially migrant workers, he said.
Labour Minister Sirichai Distakul said the government is working to improve workers' quality of life and raise working conditions to meet international standards.
The ministry has also reformed a number of laws to better protect migrant workers during their stay in the country, he added.
Mr Sirichai gave the example of the social security law, which has been amended so that migrant workers who wish to return home before they resign at 55 can still receive their --and their employers' -- provident fund payments.
Another new law makes employers, rather than labourers, bear the costs of work placement services. The same law keeps a lid on how many migrant workers the job-placement brokers can bring into the country.
Other bodies, like the Prevention of Human Trafficking on Labour Operation Centre, are working for greater transparency in industries like fishing and seafood processing where forced labour is rife, said Labour permanent secretary ML Puntrik Smiti.
She said centres that educate migrant workers about their rights have been set up in Tak, Nong Khai and Sa Keo.
Some have even been permitted to work as language coordinators assisting state officials in communicating with other workers from their mother country, she said.
Working at the PIPO centres in 22 coastal provinces, these language coordinators help screen migrant workers before they are interviewed in a bid to detect possible victims of human trafficking.
Between Dec 19 and April 19, 44,345 migrant workers have been interviewed and 3,467 found to be underpaid, said ML Puntrik. Their employers were subsequently ordered to at least pay the minimum wage in compliance with the law.
The penalties for abuses of workers under the 18 in dangerous industries or workplaces have also been doubled. Employers who breach the rules now face up to four years in prison and a fine of between 800,000 baht and 2 million baht.
To further improve the situation, the ministry said it plans to hire more inspectors, extend their powers, and work more closely with other agencies and NGOs.
As part of the cooperation between the ministry and NGOs, Migrant Worker Assistance Centres have been set up in Samut Sakhon, Surat Thani, Songkhla, Samut Prakan, Chon Buri, Ranong, Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen and Tak.
The permanent secretary said other centres have been set up in Songkhla, Chon Buri, Rayong and Pattani to protect the rights of fishery workers.
The ministry and LPN are also setting up a fishery crew centre in Samut Sakhon as a pilot scheme to coordinate the work of government agencies and NGOs in helping fishery workers.
This week, the Bangkok Post will interview people from various sectors for its '3 Years after Coup' series. This is the second of the series, which will wrap up next Monday.