Thailand claims junta better placed to tackle fish sector abuses

Thai fish exports to the EU - such as prawns - are under threat of a complete ban over forced labour and over-fishing. [Ellen Munro/Flickr]

Thai authorities have registered more than 70,000 previously undocumented foreign workers in its fishing industry, navy officials said Thursday (11 February), part of a bid by the junta to stave off a potentially ruinous EU ban on its seafood exports.

And at a press conference in Bangkok, the military junta which seized power in May 2014 said previous failures in the industry were at least partly due to the “civilian administration.”

Thailand is under intense pressure to overhaul its lucrative fishing sector.

>>Read: Thai junta promises illegal fishing crackdown ahead of EU ban decision

Last spring, the European Union hit the country with a “yellow card” warning, threatening to ban all seafood exports unless the military government tackled rampant illegal fishing and labour abuses among its fleets.

EU officials visited the kingdom last month for an inspection to decide whether a ban goes ahead, a move that could cost Thailand up to $1 billion in lost revenue.

Thailand is the world’s third largest exporter of seafood – a status that rights groups say is achieved through illegal overfishing and a reliance on low-paid trafficked workers from neighbouring countries.

The junta government of General Prayut Chan-ocha has struggled to revive the kingdom’s slumping economy and is desperate to avoid any costly sanctions on the vital sector.

In a briefing with foreign journalists on Thursday, navy, fisheries and labour officials insisted the clampdown on illegal practices was yielding results.

“It’s a national agenda, and the Thai prime minister has stressed that he has zero tolerance on this issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee said. 

The junta says documenting foreign workers, many of whom illegally enter Thailand from Myanmar and Cambodia and are easily exploited, will help end the cycle of abuse.

Of an estimated 200,000 undocumented foreigners working in the industry, 70,000 had now been registered, said Commander Piyanan Kawmanee, assistant spokesman of a Navy-led taskforce heading up the crackdown.

“Around 50,000 were working in (fish) processing plants, the rest on fishing vessels,” he said.

Those who had been documented would be allowed to continue working for at least two years, officials said.

>>Read: EU to decide on Thai seafood ban

More than 8,000 fishing vessels have also had their registrations revoked in the last year, they added. The military say successive civilian Thai governments failed to tackle systemic problems within key industries like fishing and aviation – another sector that is facing the threat of international regulatory sanctions.

“During civilian administrations… sometimes we couldn’t enforce efficiently,” said Vice Admiral Jumpol Lumpiganon, who added that the EU’s yellow card warning and the junta’s rise to power had become a “catalyst” to push reforms.

Critics say the military’s repeated interventions in politics over the last decade hobbled any civilian government’s chances of instituting long term reforms.

Officials said they did not know when the EU would make its decision but they were hopeful Thailand could avoid any sanctions. “We are confident that thanks to the laws and regulations passed last year we have the tools to ensure that no underage or forced labour will occur in our processing factories as well as fishing vessels,” said Arrug Phrommanee, director general of the Ministry of labour.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the Thai military deposed the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.

The government have promised a lengthy process of constitution-drafting before any return to elections in 2017 at the earliest.

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