Slavery, trafficking, murder and corruption at all levels of government still pervade Thailand’s billion-dollar fishing industry, activists claim, despite recent arrests linked to human rights abuses and the threat of an EU-wide boycott.
The Thai government has implemented measures to crack down on trafficking and arrested more than 100 people since the EU issued its “yellow card” last April, threatening a ban on seafood imports unless Thailand cleaned up illegal fishing and labour abuses.
But activists claim too little has changed in the industry, which is estimated to be worth $7bn (€6.35bn) a year, despite Thai authorities and private businesses claiming they are confident they are on the right track to avoid the ban.
“Our investigations at sea and across the Thai seafood sector continue to find extensive violence, corruption and abuse,” said Steve Trent, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an NGO that has been working with the Thai government on the issue.
“Slaves are still on the boats; nationals of neighbouring states are still trafficked in to provide cheap or free labour, and Thai fishing vessels continue to fish illegally and unsustainably, thereby reinforcing the economic incentives to use bonded, forced and slave labour to keep the costs down.”
Investigations by the Guardian over the past two years found that Thai and migrant slaves are used on trawlers that catch fish sold in the US, UK and elsewhere in Europe.
In 2014, the US State Department’s trafficking in persons (Tip) report downgraded Thailand to tier three, the lowest ranking, and the country has remained there.
Since the EU’s yellow card warning last April, Thai authorities have enacted legislation to curb trafficking and illegal fishing. Measures adopted include an illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing enforcement act in alignment with EU regulations, and labour laws preventing under-18s from working on boats and in seafood processing factories. A command centre to combat illegal fishing (CCCIF) has also been introduced, with a remit to track every fishing vessel in Thailand’s 42,000-strong fleet through a new registration and monitoring system.
Last month, seafood companies signed a memorandum of understanding with the command centre pledging to eliminate products in their supply chains that had been obtained through illegal fishing, labour or trafficking. Thai Union Group, the world’s biggest tuna exporter, is among the signatories. Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, which the Guardian previously exposed as having slavery in its supply chain, is also a signatory..
An EU delegation visited Thailand last month to reassess the situation, but has not yet commented on its findings.
Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, is desperate to avoid the crippling effects of an EU-wide ban. A boycott could cost the south-east Asian nation $1 billion a year.
The military government ruling Thailand says the crackdown on trafficking is a major achievement. “Measures implemented since last April have been aimed at halting all illegal fishing, installing monitoring systems on fishing boats and eliminating the use of child and slave labour,” the CCCIF’s Benjamaporn Wongnakornsawong told the Bangkok Post.
“The CCCIF has been working on this issue with the EU’s cooperation for some time now. We’re confident we’re on the right track.”
According to independent investigations by the EJF, however, policing of fishing boats remains highly erratic; overfishing is rampant, driving the need for cheap and/or free labour; crew transfers still take place at sea, allowing slaves to remain unseen by authorities; and the number of convictions linked to trafficking has decreased – from 206 in 2014 to 169 in 2015.
“The root causes behind these abuses run very deep and to effectively address them it will be necessary to address the culture of clientelism and extensive corruption, both in the business community and across the statutory agencies of the state,” Trent said. “There needs to be a huge effort to build a much wider, broadly accepted culture of compliance, along with an effective monitoring and enforcement regime that can deal with the worst offenders, criminal elements and thugs who have characterised these issues in the Thai seafood sector.”
In spite of the ruling junta’s “genuine and serious” efforts to wipe out trafficking, the military government may be preventing real progress, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institutes of Security and International Studies.
“A top-down government with absolute power ironically lacks mechanisms to solve human trafficking problems at home, due to both a lack of cooperation and corruption from agencies and personnel involved. Rectifying human trafficking cannot simply be ordered and delivered from the top – it involves carrots and sticks on the ground.”
In an industry that relies heavily on migrant labour – more than 90% of those working in the fishing sector are from neighbouring countries, many of them trafficked – it is up to the government to create a framework that protects migrant workers both on the ground and at sea. Yet Thailand has failed to implement such a strategy, putting millions of workers at unnecessary risk, claims migrant rights activist Andy Hall.
“The government migration policy continues to be short term and, in many ways, continues to promote the smuggling and trafficking of people irregularly across borders and in and out of work whilst undermining formal and safer migration channels,” says Hall. “There have also been many kneejerk reactions to public pressure in the seafood sector that have impacted negatively on workers in the supply chain.”
Wiping out all forms of slavery – from trafficking to bonded work and everything in between – is no easy task in an industry that has depended on slavery, and profited from it, for decades.
But some local businesses say Thailand has already done enough cleaning up to prove the EU – and the world – wrong.
“Thailand can guarantee that as of January 2016, there is no illegal labour in the Thai fishing industry,” Thiraphong Chansiri, the president and chief executive of Thai Union Group, recently claimed. “The country does not deserve such a ban.”