The Thai fishing industry is one of the largest on earth. As a nation with over 3,000 kilometres of coastline, it’s no wonder that many of the country’s residents rely upon the ocean for their livelihood. Some of the numbers involved are staggering. Thailand is the world’s third largest seafood exporter, generating nearly $9 billion in revenue every year - a good deal of which comes from American and European markets. With an expanding fishing workforce of nearly three-quarters of a million people, the scale of the operation cannot be underestimated. However, in recent years, this vast industry has found itself under increasing scrutiny.
In 2014, articles published in The Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press and others revealed that Thailand has a huge problem with forced labour and human trafficking. Reports began to emerge of horrific abuse within Thai fishing fleets. Fishermen were tortured, forced to work 20-hour shifts and kept on their feet through forced administration of methamphetamine. One shocking statistic stated that 59 per cent of trafficked personnel had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker by fishing crews.
The problem centres around Thai fishing’s significant migrant workforce. Every year, huge numbers of Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian labourers make their way to the Thai coast - lured by the promise of work absent in their homelands. Often, these men are offered positions away from fishing’s frontline, in canning factories or markets. However, after arriving in a Thai port, they find themselves Shanghaied aboard ships against their will, often to spend months at sea. Working in terrible conditions, these migrant workers endure regular beatings and receive no pay.
Reports suggest that this abuse has been systematic for years, with authorities either turning a blind eye or unable to provide meaningful assistance. However, the initial publication of the story in 2014 meant that the industry fell under greater scrutiny than ever before. The impact was immediate. The United States relegated Thailand to “Tier 3” in its annual human trafficking report - alongside countries such as North Korea. The European Union issued a “yellow card” warning to the Thai government, meaning that if steps were not taken to improve the conditions of the abused workforce, all Thai seafood products would be banned. For the first time, officials were forced to take legislative action.
On the surface, the early Thai response appeared to be positive. A massive overhaul of the entire industry was announced, with new policies dictating that all crew members aboard fishing vessels be officially counted, and the previously undocumented foreign workforce be recognised. In a recent report published by Human Rights Watch, a spokesperson for Thailand’s National Fisheries Association declared less than convincingly that, “The consumers of the USA and Europe can eat our seafood. Everything is fine”.
Unfortunately, it has become clear that everything is far from fine. Human Rights Watch’s report revealed that the reforms are proving to be incredibly ineffectual and that new legislation is being largely ignored. According to Jason Judd, programme manager for the Ship to Shore Rights project, extra bureaucracy has added a new layer of problems. Retention of official documents, withholding of wages, uncompensated overtime and debt bondage are all rampant within the supposedly new-look Thai fishing industry.
One of the most significant failures of the reforms have been the new “pink cards”, introduced as a means of documenting migrant workers. The theory was that these would provide workers with a means of official identification, allowing authorities to monitor who is going on and off boats and employees to move freely between positions. In reality, they have become a new way for crooked captains to force migrants into bondage. In order to change jobs, a worker must obtain written permission from their current employer on their pink card. In many cases, companies are either refusing to hand pink cards over, or are claiming to have lost them altogether. With no means to unionisation and a lack of personnel at busy ports, with as few as two people monitoring 100 vessels, it is easy to get away with such abuses of power. This is just one example of how the new laws are failing to protect a vulnerable workforce.
It seems clear that the Thai industry is showing little willingness to change meaningfully on its own. However, as with many things, the way to make authorities take notice is money. It is here that, as consumers, we can all help make a real difference. For American and European customers, the most common Thai exports are prawns and shrimp. Therefore by rigorously checking where our seafood is sourced from and choosing alternatives from other fisheries, we can help play a part in pressurising Thai authorities to make a change. It may seem insignificant, but any small gesture is worth it in the fight against slavery.
In a world where we are all too disconnected from how our food is produced, it’s easy to remain distant from the plight of people on the other side of the world. However, when it is an issue of inhumane exploitation, it’s not enough to plead ignorance. We all have a duty to make responsible choices about our food. Until it can be proved that slavery is a thing of the past, anyone who wants to avoid a guilty conscience would do well to avoid Thai seafood.