Combating IUU and illegal labour practices in Thai fishing

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Thai military leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha used his new year speech to highlight a crackdown on IUU fishing in the wake of the EU's 'yellow card.' [Wikipedia]

Last year ended with renewed interest in Thailand’s seafood industry, following AP’s sensational report into illegal labour practices in shrimp processing facilities in Thailand.

The Thai government came into power by a military coup in May 2014. Since April 2015 the country’s vital fish export sector has been under a ‘yellow card’ warning for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by the EU Commission. This is their response ahead of a decision by the Commisison whether to upgrade that to a ‘red card’, and a total ban on fish imports from Thailand.

Like many stories from other media outlets that came out after Thailand was put on a formal notice by the EU for the problem of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in April 2015, the report failed to deliver a balanced and accurate reporting into what is happening on the ground, and led to further distortion of the facts.

The Thai government is by no means trying to shift blame and shy away from its responsibilities. On the contrary, the government is well aware of its many challenges and has been working closely with all stakeholders that include the private sector, civil society, and other international partners, including the EU and relevant international organisations to address these deep-rooted problems. These issues are technical – with complicated solutions and measures and even more complex assessment of the progress. 

Therefore, it is only natural that this information rarely make it to the press – and there is the age-old saying of “bad news sell papers”.

This short article will not try to undo the misperceptions and demystify all the myths surrounding Thai fishing industry. Instead, it will give a small glimpse into Thailand’s fight against IUU fishing, and illegal labour practices in order for the readers to start questioning what they read in sensational news “report” and aspire to learn more from objective and reputable sources.

What is IUU fishing, and how does labour issues fit into it?

IUU stands for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and refers to fishing practices that are either illegal (fishing without permission or in contravention of laws and regulations), unreported (fishing without reporting or misreporting), or unregulated (fishing in contravention of conservation or management measures). Put simply, IUU leads to depleted fish stocks, disrupts marine ecology, and gives rise to unfair competition.

As the world’s biggest fish importer, the EU imposed the IUU regulation to help ensure sustainable fishing and rectify this problem along its supply chain. The regulation, which entered into force in 2010, requires that fisheries products entering the EU market are certified as legal. If an exporting country is unable to certify its products the EU will provide assistance to help improve legal frameworks. The formal notice or the ‘yellow card’ allows the EU and the exporting country to strengthen their cooperation to address any shortcomings. 

If said country fails to cooperate, it can be put on a blacklist that leads to a trade ban on all fishery products caught by the offending country.

Labour issues, while not related to IUU fishing, and the cooperative process outlined above, are among key areas of common interest between Thailand and the EU due to the prevalence illegal labour practices in many fish exporting countries, including Thailand. The nature of the job, which requires that workers be on fishing vessels away from watchful eyes for long periods at a time, gives rise to exploitation such as lower working conditions, forced labour, and even human trafficking.

In Thailand’s case, the labour issues are further complicated by the large supply of migrant workers from neighbouring countries looking for better economic opportunities.  While the government has long fought to regularise the large population of undocumented workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, and promoted legal employment cooperation through bilateral agreements, the porous border and attractive wages continue to draw more undocumented workers. Being undocumented, these migrant workers are at particular risk of exploitation.

Thailand’s fight against IUU fishing, and illegal labour practices

Thailand and the EU have been working together closely since April 2015 to address the challenges of IUU fishing, and have been working in tandem with other national and international partners long before 2015 to eliminate illegal labour practices in Thai fishing and seafood processing sectors.

Seizing the opportunity given by the close cooperation and assistance from the EU and interested partners, the government has redoubled its efforts and has integrated measures targeting labour issues in our legislative and law enforcement measures against IUU fishing. 

The new Royal Ordinance on Fisheries, which came into effect on 14 November 2015, contains measures to help eliminate all forms of illegal labour practices, including the use of undocumented workers and forced laborers, and improve welfare and working conditions of workers in the fisheries sector, in addition to measures to help rectify IUU fishing.

At the same time, relevant agencies have also been conducting thorough inspections on fishing vessels and at seafood processing plants to tackle the use of illegal labour, forced labour, and human trafficking.  This is done in concert with new rounds of registration to regularise undocumented workers in order to ensure that workers are protected, while business owners involved in illegal labour practices are punished. These measures have led to concrete results in terms of law enforcement – in fact, The Associated Press report on illegal shrimp peeling sheds on 14 December 2015 was a result of the inspection done on 9 November 2015, which led to an immediate shutdown, and the arrest of the owner, as well as the rescue of 31 victims of trafficking.

Interested readers are encouraged to read more about Thailand’s measures to address IUU and illegal labour practices in Thai fishing, as well as regular updates on the progress on the Royal Thai Embassy’s website under the Fisheries and Agro Industry Section.

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