Crew rescue casts long shadow
Trawler's plight off Somali coast exposes shady practices in Thai fishing industry
Last week's rescue of 18 Thai fishermen from a stricken vessel drifting without fuel in the sea off Somalia has raised concerns over a hidden form of human trafficking.
Although the men left Thailand with proper travel documents, they ended up assigned to work aboard a foreign fishing trawler which had been operating in the territorial waters of other countries.
Despite promises by an unauthorised job broker of good salaries when they accepted the work, the men claimed they had not been paid for several months before their vessels became stranded off the coast of Africa.
Last week, a recorded video call made by one of the stranded crew to a friend in Phuket made headlines and prompted efforts by authorities to provide help.
The video footage showed substandard living conditions on the fishing trawlers drifting off the coast of Somalia.
Meanwhile, a Thai crew member contacted the embassy in Kenya on Aug 1 to say that crewmen on the Wadani 1 trawler wanted to go home as they had not been paid, had run out of fuel and were desperately low on food and fresh water.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent assistance to the trawler and the Thai members of the crew are scheduled to arrive in Bangkok this morning.
Following media reports about the rescue of the group, crew broker Nithiwat Thiranantakul, who is also known as Hia Chang, told a Thai-language newspaper, Naewna, that he handled salary payments to the crew members on behalf of their employer.
He refused to divulge the company's name.
Mr Nithiwat claimed he had been unable to pay the workers' salaries in July because seven seafood containers supplied to him by the employer had yet to pass an inspection by the Department of Fisheries, so he was unable to sell the seafood to pay the men as usual.
He insisted that previously these workers had been paid every month and they were allowed to keep in contact with their families in Thailand while working overseas.
"The crew could contact their families, no problem at all. I took good care of them. Some complaints are about payment as they had no money to send back home in July.
"I explained that the reserved money was used up and the Department of Fisheries was still considering releasing the goods," he said.
Mr Nithiwat described his business as a consultancy serving commercial operators whose trawlers fish primarily in the Andaman Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
These groups buy Thai vessels, often to fish in the waters off Iran, Somalia and other countries in the Red Sea group such as Sudan, he said, claiming the Thai workers were hired to train foreign crew members.
Director-general of the Department of Fisheries Adison Phromthep, meanwhile, responded to Mr Nithiwat's claim, saying fisheries authorities are responsible for ensuring imports of seafood are supported by the correct documents certifying they are the result of legal fishing.
"The department is duty-bound to investigate the origin of marine products imported into Thailand," he said.
However, the inspection issue and salary payment issue are different matters, according to Mr Adison.
"It's the employer's responsibility to pay his or her employees their salaries, and this should have nothing to do with the department's work of inspecting the employer's catches," he said.
The Thai Maritime Enforcement Command Centre (Thai-MECC), meanwhile, revealed that Wadani 1, one of the two abandoned vessels, had been sold to an Iranian buyer in 2015.
The Department of Fisheries has also found in an investigation that the vessel isn't registered as a Thai vessel operating outside Thai waters either.
A source familiar with the business of fishing outside Thailand's territorial waters, who asked not to be named, told the Bangkok Post there are brokers who specialise in securing experienced Thai fishermen to work aboard the Thai trawlers that they purchase.
These brokers prepare all the documents required for the workers' departure from Thailand including their passports and the visas, said the expert, adding some brokers also handle salary payments on behalf of the foreign employers.
Some Thai fishing vessels are sold to a foreign nominee and operate as a foreign fishing fleet, while in reality the Thai owners still reap the benefits from the operation of these vessels in other countries, said the expert.
The Thai authorities are usually unaware these hidden fishing businesses exist as the paper trail does not lead back to domestic owners. Likewise, if the conditions in which workers are kept on the boats are less than ideal, Thai authorities may not be in a position to know.
"In general, it looks normal when crew members agree and sign contracts for the work. Starting the journey is not a difficult issue as authorities usually only focus on checking the documents," he said.
When the 18 rescued crew members return home, authorities will question them to determine whether the case fits the definition of human trafficking or not.
However, the source added that when similar rescues have been made in the past, crew members who initially claimed ill-treatment reversed their accounts upon reaching safety, making it difficult for authorities to investigate human trafficking accusations.
These workers may have been persuaded by outside influences to change the statements they initially gave to police when arriving in Thailand, according to the source.
Mongkon Sukcharoenkhana, president of National Fisheries Association of Thailand, said if the rescued workers are still interested in fishing jobs when they return home, they will be given help to help roles aboard ships that are fully legal.
He said his association would make sure their new vessels have their operations regulated by Thai authorities as well as under the International Labour Organisation's 2007 Work in Fishing Convention No.188.