HRW Wants Thailand Reform Fishing Industry

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The Thai government should undertake further reforms and act to eradicate forced labour and trafficking in the Thai fishing industry, Human Rights Watch has said in a letter to Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan–o–cha.

“Under pressure from the European Union and others, the Thai government has publicly pledged to improve labour rights in the country’s powerful and abusive fishing industry,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time to turn those words into actions that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of migrant workers suffering forced labour and other abuses.”

Former slave fisherman Myint Naing and his mother, Khin Than, cry as they are reunited last May after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. © AP

In a January 2018 report, “Hidden Chains: Forced labour and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry,” Human Rights Watch described how vulnerable migrant workers from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia are recruited into fishing, prevented from changing employers, forced to work overtime, and not paid in accordance with Thai law, among other abuses Human Rights Watch interviewed 248 current and former workers in the fishing industry about recruitment practices, salaries and payment systems, working hours, occupational health and safety, and a range of other issues. This group included 95 individuals whom Thai authorities or others had designated as victims of trafficking.

The April 13 letter offers a series of recommendations that Human Rights Watch has discussed in detail with the prime minister’s office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labour, and other government agencies to achieve greater protection and more robust enforcement of labour rights in Thailand’s fisheries sector.

Since 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed 248 current and former workers in the fishing industry about recruitment practices, salaries and payment systems, working hours, occupational health and safety, and a range of other issues. This group included 95 individuals whom Thai authorities or others had designated as victims of trafficking. Human Rights Watch research identified 20 forced labor situations in 34 group and individual interviews with fishers, accounting for 90 of the 138 fishers we interviewed who were still employed on boats at the time of the interviews.

 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 248 current and former workers in the fishing industry about recruitment practices, salaries and payment systems, working hours, occupational health and safety, and a range of other issues. This group included 95 individuals whom Thai authorities or others had designated as victims of trafficking

 

Forced labour in the Thai fishing industry has persisted amid a culture of abuse, even as the government has undertaken high–profile initiatives to clean up the sector and portray a better image internationally. Despite some improvements, the situation has not changed substantially since a large–scale survey of 496 fishers in 2012 found that almost one in five “reported working against their will with the menace of a penalty preventing them from leaving.”

Human Rights Watch’s research found that migrant workers who voluntarily enter employment aboard Thai fishing vessels often cannot leave because boat owners, skippers, and brokers hold them in forced labour. They may work alongside individuals who secured their jobs through similar channels but who are not victims of forced labour, or alongside individuals who can be considered trafficking victims as a result of the way they were recruited.

 

Thai government’s failure to identify and assist victims of forced labour in the fishing industry who have not been trafficked is partly because forced labour is not a stand–alone offense under Thai law. Without legal provisions criminalising the practices that put individuals who have voluntarily begun work in the fishing sector into situations of forced labour

 

Human Rights Watch’s research found multiple indicators of forced labour that Thai inspection frameworks fail to adequately or systematically address, including deception regarding key terms of employment; retention of identity documents; wage withholding; recruitment linked to debt; excessive work hours; and obstruction of workers’ freedom to change employers.

Key inspection frameworks that the Thai junta introduced in 2015 are undermined by a lack of meaningful interaction between workers and officials. Labour inspectors often operate under false assumptions that only undocumented migrants can be victims of exploitation, and rely on dubious paper records and unverified information from senior crew or employers to monitor practices and working conditions. Inspections focus on the monitoring and control of workers, ensuring only that the fisher is matched to his pink card and his name appears on the crew manifest for the boat he is on.

 

Thai junta introduced in 2015 are undermined by a lack of meaningful interaction between workers and officials. Labour inspectors often operate under false assumptions that only undocumented migrants can be victims of exploitation, and rely on dubious paper records and unverified information from senior crew or employers to monitor practices and working conditions

 

Senior officials from frontline agencies, meanwhile, noted to Human Rights Watch that government victim identification efforts often focus on the more overt or objective conditions of exploitation, such as forcible confinement or physical mistreatment. In some cases, assessments rely only on superficial efforts to identify victims of abuse, such as seeing whether workers present indications of physical mistreatment.

The Thai government’s failure to identify and assist victims of forced labour in the fishing industry who have not been trafficked is partly because forced labour is not a stand–alone offense under Thai law. Without legal provisions criminalising the practices that put individuals who have voluntarily begun work in the fishing sector into situations of forced labour, victims have little hope of accessing appropriate remedies or seeing perpetrators held to account.

Migrant labourer on a Thai fishing boat in Sattahip, Thailand’s Rayong province. Thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia set sail on Thai fishing boats every day, but many are unwilling seafarers – slaves forced to work in brutal conditions under threat of death. © Getty Images

To address exploitation and abuse in the industry and ensure victims are adequately protected, Thailand should enact legislation to prohibit all forms of forced labour, giving due consideration to the various means and elements of this crime. Thailand’s anti–trafficking law was amended in 2017 to include additional means by which people can be placed into forced labour, such as debt bondage, but it still fails to provide protection to victims of forced labour who have not been trafficked. Thailand needs a stand–alone law which recognises that forced labor is a broader concept than trafficking in persons and that the means by which people are put into forced labour are more numerous than specified in existing Thai law.

Labour inspectors need better tools and training to help them investigate employer practices and working conditions to spot indicators of forced labour. Adequate resources, especially trained inspectors, screening tools, and more interpreters, need to be made available to key government agencies such as the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare and the Department of Employment, which both operate under the Ministry of Labour.

Inspection regimens and interview frameworks should be fundamentally revised to ensure that workers’ voices are placed at the centre of new procedures that include guarantees to protect workers who speak out. Legal provisions that discriminate against migrant workers by preventing them from organising or leading unions should be urgently eliminated so that all workers can exercise their right to freedom of association. Loopholes in labour laws and regulations should be amended and compliance with labour standards rigorously enforced. All those responsible for abuses, including vessel owners, skippers, brokers, and corrupt officials, should be held accountable by authorities.

Recruitment into the fishing industry should be fair. Employers, not workers, should be responsible for paying recruitment costs. Third parties providing migrant workers to fishing boats should be regulated effectively by ensuring that brokers are licensed, operating through formal recruitment channels, and closely monitored to ensure they comply with clearly established rules preventing extortionate recruitment fees. Workers are entitled to written copies of employment contracts in a language they understand. Employers should be required to fully explain to workers their rights and the terms and conditions of work before they sign a contract. ■

© HRW

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