Slavery in fishing

Thailand is considered a major source and transit area for slavery. Credit: www.rubins.org/GFDL             Thailand is considered a major source and transit area for slavery. Credit: www.rubins.org/GFDL

The Thailand prawn farming industry has recently received much negative publicity due to its alleged involvement in fishing slavery, reports Bryan Gibson.

A six-month investigation by The Guardian newspaper has established that large numbers of men and young boys are being bought and sold like animals and held against their will on the decks of unseaworthy and usually unregistered trash fish trawlers, which specialise in catching small and juvenile fish species for conversion into processed fish meal for Thai prawn farms.

Due to their low (or zero) labour cost, this force of entirely unwilling conscripts has become integral to the commercial production of farmed prawns sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including top global retailers such as Tesco, Walmart, Carrefour, Costco, Aldi, Morrisons, the Co-Operative and Iceland. And it might be considered, that with such an array of powerful buyers capable of erring on the side of right, slavery onboard fishing vessels, or forced labour connected anywhere else within a commercial food-chain, ought to have proven an easy problem to fix.

One of the largest producers of prawns is Charoen Pokphand, which sells frozen and cooked prawns in the manufacture of ready meals such as prawn curries and stir fry. CP Foods told WF&A that it categorically condemns any form of forced labour and, following the allegations made in The Guardian report, is committed to ensuring that it plays no part in the company’s supply chain. The company immediately initiated a comprehensive investigation into every step of the supply chain, which is ongoing at this time.

Pending the outcome of these investigations, CP Foods has suspended purchasing product for its shrimp feed business from all suppliers except those offering internationally certified, 100% by-product based fishmeal, for which they are able to verify the supply chain of all ingredients.

Up to 300,000 fishing slaves are forced to work and live permanently aboard Thai ‘trash fish’ trawlers for years at a time under the threat of extreme violence and often murder.

Thai ambassador to the US, Vijavat Isarabhakdi told The Guardian, "Thailand is committed to combatting human trafficking. We know a lot more needs to be done but we have also made significant progress to address the problem."

Although the Thai government has told The Guardian that "combating human trafficking is a national priority", the newspaper’s undercover investigation unearthed a lawless and unregulated industry run by criminals; assisted in no small measure by the Thai maffia as well as government officials and sustained by the brokers who supply cheap migrant labour to boat owners.

"The Thai authorities could get rid of the brokers and arrange legitimate employment," said one high-ranking Thai official tasked with investigating human trafficking cases on condition of anonymity. “As long as boat owners still depend on brokers, and not the government to supply workers, then the problem will never go away."

Release for the enslaved only arrives when the skipper decides that the $450 he paid to the broker has been fully earned or paid-off by relatives and friends.

Downgrade
After being warned for four consecutive years about not doing enough to tackle slavery, the US Department of State has downgraded Thailand to Tier 3 in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The downgrade means Thailand could potentially face sanctions, which might include the withdrawal of US non-humanitarian and non-trade-related assistance.

The Guardian conducted interviews with fishermen, boat captains, boat managers, factory owners and Thai officials from fishing ports. Thailand enjoys prime position as the world's largest prawn exporter within a seafood-export industry estimated to be worth $7.3bn. Via multinational companies such as CP Foods, Thailand exports 500,000 tonnes of prawns annually, nearly 10% of which is farmed by CP Foods.

Although slavery is illegal in every country in the world, it is estimated that 21 million men, women and children are enslaved globally, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Human rights activists believe that Thailand's seafood-export industry would collapse without slavery. They say there is little incentive for the Thai government to take a positive stance and have called for consumers and international retailers to demand action.

Whenever a population becomes isolated and excluded from the political, commercial or sociological mainstream, it runs the risk of unreasonable and illegal exploitation.

Thailand is considered a major source and transit area for slavery, and nearly half a million people are believed to be enslaved within Thailand's borders. There is no official record of how many men are currently entrapped aboard fishing boats, but the Thai government estimates that up to 300,000 people work within its fishing industry, 90% of whom are migrants vulnerable to being tricked, trafficked and sold to the sea. So that probably means most are being held against their will.

Aidan McQuade of Anti Slavery International states, “There are over 5.5 million children in forced labour throughout the world, and if you buy prawns from Thailand, inevitably, you are buying the product of slave labour." And for any commercial fisherman with a vestige of caring for his fellow mankind and is searching for a new and legitimate catch source, then taking-up the legal, moral and sustainable catching of Atlantic prawns and langoustines anywhere in the upper northern hemisphere, this might be a very good place for him to start.

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