Violence and murder in Thai fisheries

One of the trafficking victims shows the physical damage done to his hands while working aboard a Thai fishing boat © EJF One of the trafficking victims shows the physical damage done to his hands while working aboard a Thai fishing boat © EJF

A new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has documented harrowing evidence of human trafficking and exploitation in Thailand’s fishing industry, where boat workers are subjected to excessive working hours, little or no pay, threats of violence, physical abuse, and even murder, reports Carly Wills.

Thailand’s seafood industry, including processing, aquaculture and marine fisheries, employs more than 650,000 people, with exports totalling $7.3bn in 2011. Thailand is the world’s third largest seafood exporter by value.

However, long hours, low and unpredictable pay, physically demanding work and long periods at sea have meant that the Thai fishing industry is suffering from labour shortage, with shortfall of labour of over 10,000 jobs in 2011. This has fuelled human trafficking to supply cheap labour for Thai boats.

Thai fishing vessels in the Asia Pacific region are almost exclusively crewed by migrants, with an estimated 200,000 from Thailand’s neighbouring countries, many who have been trafficked. Violence, forced detention and murder are commonplace – a shocking 59% of workers surveyed in 2009 by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.

For the report Sold to the Sea the EJF investigation included the case of 14 Myanmar men rescued from a port in the southern city of Kantang. Two days later another trafficking victim was brought to join the group. He had been rescued from a fishing boat at sea. EJF interviewed six of the victims rescued from port, who had been at sea for at least five months and were forced to work up to 20 hours per day and had been badly beaten by senior crew. Two reported witnessing the torture and murder of a fellow crewmember and the murder of at least five other individuals.

One man said that he saw one of his friends killed for trying to run away, and he witnessed the murder of three other men for conspiring to flee.

Another man also spoke of fishing illegally in Indonesian waters and fearing that they would be killed in Indonesia if they were caught. “When the Captain saw the boat on the radar they told us to pull up the nets as soon as possible, and then flee away”, he said.

The report documents corruption within the legal system too, with the authorities responsible for upholding the law and protecting the victims not only complicit in their exploitation, but profiting from it as well. While the victims were in port they were forced by the broker who trafficked them to work on a Kantang police senior official’s rubber plantation, and they were also forced by the broker to paint the cells at a local police station.

The EJF also reports that the boat owner, under investigation for his role in the case, was allowed to speak with the victims six days after they were rescued, supplying them with cigarettes, food and soft drinks. They were also visited by associates of the broker responsible for the trafficking, and the broker’s wife who was brought in by the police as a translator.

EJF lead campaigner Andy Hickman told World Fishing & Aquaculture, “At the moment, Thailand lacks the genuine political will to put a stop to human trafficking in the fishing sector. As our report highlights, local authorities are not only turning a blind eye to trafficking, they are sometimes profiting from it. This has to change if Thailand is going to break the cycle of violence and corruption that characterises human trafficking in the Thai fisheries sector.”

Thailand has been placed on the Tier 2 Watchlist of the US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for the past three years, after narrowly avoided being downgraded to Tier 3 (the worst possible rating) following a written plan to address the issues by the Thai government in 2012. Countries ranked as Tier 3 means that their governments do not comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

As WF&A goes to press, we are awaiting the latest TIP report which will show if Thailand has been downgraded to Tier 3, or whether it will be upgraded – something Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs is confident of, after submitting a progress report on Thailand’s efforts to tackle human trafficking in March 2013. If the country is downgraded it could have a significant impact of Thailand’s export economy if the US imposed sanctions on Thailand, as the US is its second largest export market.

Mr Hickman said, “There is no explicit guidance on what trade measures could or would apply if Thailand was downgraded to Tier 3 of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. However it is likely that there would be restrictions on the export of seafood products to the United States. Given that exports to the United States account for 36.4% of the value of Thai seafood exports, the impact could be very significant.”

He said that the reputational impacts are important to consider too – a downgrade to Tier 3 would put Thailand in a group of countries that includes Papua New Guinea, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which are deemed the world’s worst when it comes to human trafficking.

“Through this report, EJF is highlighting the gap between statements made by the Thai Government and the situation at sea and in Thai ports for trafficked workers,” said Mr Hickman. “As well as calling for the Thai Government to urgently address this issue, we are working with a number of seafood companies and retailers on ensuring that trafficking does not exist within their supply chains. Internationally, EJF is also campaigning for the development of a Global Record of industrial fishing vessels and the ratification of the ILO Work in Fishing Convention. Both are absolutely essential in improving transparency and traceability, and ending human rights abuses at sea.”

He said that the EJF is also investigating human trafficking in other areas of the seafood supply chain, not exclusively in Thailand. “Our investigations continue and we hope to publish our findings soon”, said Mr Hickman.

For an update to this story please click here.


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