A four-strong delegation from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) investigating labour rights abuses in Thailand this week have found that little has changed in that country's fishing industry, so notorious for its trafficking in migrant workers, slavery, torture, brutality and murder, despite media exposure last year and the laudable lead by America to downgrade Thailand to Tier 3 in its annual report on human trafficking. Tier 3 is the worst level for nations that fail to meet the minimum standards to protect workers as laid out in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.
The ITF team found that the fishers on board vessels it investigated were subject to poor working conditions, cramped accommodation and long contracts, some of them with no hope of returning home with any pay. ITF inspector, Keith McCoriston, commented on conditions aboard one vessel he inspected. "The crew was scared to talk to us. They had no contracts, no toilet, no shower and no mattresses. Cooking facilities consisted of an open flame and basic utensils. The 24-crew slept in cramped accommodation. We spoke to one fisher who had been on board for 10 months although we expect this is a gross understatement."
Apinja Tajit from the Stella Maris seafarer centre in Sriracha remarked: "We are dealing in many cases with abandoned fishers in Thailand and of the abandoned fishers outside of Thailand. We know of one fisher who was abandoned in hospital with no pay for breaking his leg while on board a vessel. Another fisher was so traumatized by his experience of abuse that he needs trauma counselling. He struggled to explain to us that he was chained like a dog for trying to escape the vessel he was on."
The fishing industry is big business in Thailand. Overall fish exports are said to be worth US$7.5 billion a year, of which canned tuna accounts for $2.3 billion or a 20% share of the world market. The farmed prawn export market is also huge, itself the offspring of the tuna industry. In the pursuit of tuna vast amounts of 'trash fish', too small to be edible, are scooped up and ground into meal for sale to the Thai prawn farmers, where it often ends up on shop shelves around the world as part of dishes like prawn stir fry. According to the Thai government 300,000 work in the fishing industry, while in the canneries they rely on foreign migrants for 80% of their labour needs. In all there are reportedly four million migrants working in Thailand's factories, fishing fleets and brothels. Most migrants in Thailand are undocumented. The ITF states that there are 40,000 Thai fishing vessels operating with only 10,000 registered, many with fake licences, and crewed by unregistered migrant workers. This "cloak of invisibility," says the ITF, "allows the boat captains to treat workers like modern day slaves."
Supporting these captains is a network of odious brokers who for extortionate fees promise migrants, many from poorer countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, jobs in factories and construction, while all the time planning to sell them to trawler captains for as little as £250 each. Helped by energy-boosting drugs, these duped, hapless fishers work 20 hours a day. Beatings are regular and there is torture and execution-style killings. One trafficking victim claimed he saw 20 slaves killed, including one whose limbs were tied to four trawler bows and torn apart at sea.
Thailand's fish worth more than fishers
Mark Davis, ITF deputy regional secretary for the Asia Pacific region, added: "The industry is facing huge challenges throughout the region but is is the workers who are suffering because of this. Neglect and abuse are rife for migrant workers and Thai nationals, too. How have we got to a position where a fish has more value than the worker who catches it?"
In my blog headed: "Thailand's trawlers of terror shame food supply chains," I implied that western buyers of Thailand's prawn-based exports, namely the big food retailers like Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco, often extolled their roles as responsible citizens shunning all forms of slavery and exploitation in their supply chains yet the problem remains almost untrammelled, indicating that consumers can no longer rely on such ineffectual protestations. Since then it would be fair to say that leading retailers like the UK's Tesco, a wholesale buyer of Thai canned tuna, are under pressure to improve worker protection following America's downgrading of Thailand to Tier 3, but what are they really doing to hit the insouciant, mega Thai industries who are still wanting in cleaning out their Augean stables of worker abuse in their supply chains? Certainly not, it seems, as much as Norway which, for example, has led the way in applying pressure, with one leading Norwegian retailer removing CP Foods' scampi-related products from its shelves, a move actively backed by the ITF and the Norwegian Seafarers' Union. CP Foods is a giant straddling the Thai fishing industry, with annual sales reportedly in the tens of billions of dollars.
It may seem blinkered and irresponsible to urge foreign consumers to boycott Thailand's seafood exports indefinitely, given that such action could hit the workers harder than their employers but there is a good chance that when faced with looming collapse these mega corporations, and the corrupt military government supporting them, will back down quickly, for nothing concentrates business minds better and so quickly than the power of the purse.
There are signs that Thailand's downgrade to Tier 3 has damaged its reputation, increasing pressure on big food retailers to improve worker protections in their supply chains, says Max Tunon, senior programme officer in Bangkok with the ILO, which monitors worker conditions worldwide. There are claims from the Thai tuna industry association that Tier 3 status has prompted improvements in the working conditions. The canneries have cut down on child labour and papers are being provided to workers which makes arbitrary detention more difficult. But critics say that the Thais have not addressed the crushing debt loads that workers take on to pay the brokers who land them jobs. The Government remains as corrupt as ever while the corrosive hand of the Thai mafia is ubiquitous. Until all this changes Thailand should remain firmly in Tier 3. Concerned consumers, meanwhile, could help by encouraging food retailers to source sea food products outside Thailand by boycotting all Thai-labelled products.