Economics and finance, Government and governance, Trade and industry, Law | Southeast Asia

1 August 2022

While traceability in Thailand’s seafood industry can help protect migrant workers from extreme abuse, it doesn’t provide any guarantee of decent working conditions, Alin Kadfak and Marie Widengård write.

A decade ago, Thailand’s fishing industry was rocked by an ongoing modern slavery scandal. According to numerous reports, people were deceived or coerced into fishing work, trafficked, and subjected to appalling conditions. In response to international pressure, the Thai government undertook major fishing practice and labour reforms.

One key reform promise was the introduction of traceability systems. This included establishing a real-time monitoring system for all vessels over 30 tonnes in size. The government also strengthened its monitoring, surveillance, and control systems at sea by increasing the number of patrol vessels, drones, and port-in-port-out (PIPO) inspection centres across Thai ports.

Following similar logic, the Thai government started documenting migrant fishworkers along with the routes of the boats they worked on at sea. The tracing commences once the migrant fishworkers arrive in Thailand and are identified through their immigration registration document.

The workers must then register to provide photos and fingerprints to apply for a seabook in order to work on a specific fishing boat. Harbour inspections occur before and after the fishing trip by PIPO officers at the harbour, all in an effort to protect the workers’ rights and working conditions.

However, despite these traceability measures, they do not ensure adequate safety at sea. Earlier this year, three fishworkers from Myanmar died from suffocation due to an inadequate cooling system while retrieving fish from a boat in southern Thailand. A local non-governmental organisation (NGO) worker from the province of the accident reported that wastewater caused by rotten fish was not properly extracted, creating toxic gas that harmed the fishworkers.

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Even though Thailand was the first country in Asia to ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s Work in Fishing Convention, which guarantees acceptable living and working conditions on fishing vessels, workers are still in danger.

So, why aren’t these traceability systems ensuring safe working conditions for migrant fishworkers?

Our research finds that while traceability reform has made a difference in terms of protecting workers from physical abuse and ensuring they receive a better, regular wage and healthcare support, workers have not experienced major improvements in their working conditions at sea.

The lack of migration policy integration in fisheries reform is part of the reason for the current state of affairs. The Thai government keeps migrants’ working status temporary, offering no long-term security. The reform makes employers, often the same group as boat owners, accountable for migrant fishworkers welfare and documentation. Although legally binding through detailed procedures, the migrants have limited freedom of movement in a system that locks workers into debt and therefore vulnerable to exploitation.

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The everyday experiences of migrant fishworkers further erode trust in the Thai authorities’ ability to settle grievances, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of traceability systems. In interviews, workers reflected on long-term issues of corruption and racial discrimination embedded in the Thai bureaucracy, which have not been improved by the reforms. As a result, workers often prefer seeking support from their peers, migrant communities, NGOs, or online sources for information.

While NGOs have played an important role in supporting these workers and highlighting the scale of problem in Thailand’s seafood industry, proposed new legislation is threatening their ability to operate effectively in the country. The Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations would reduce the freedom of NGOs to speak up for Thai and migrant workers’ human rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent political turmoil in Myanmar may also make the situation worse for migrant workers. Discrimination and double standards toward migrants during the two years of COVID-19 lockdowns have significantly impacted their health, financial position, and freedom of movement. Recent reports of large numbers of people fleeing into Thailand from Myanmar raises concerns that many may become vulnerable to debt bondage and trafficking.

Given the scale of the issue, and the impact of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing turmoil in Myanmar, well-targeted migration policy interventions are needed from the Thai government to ensure workers aren’t so vulnerable to exploitation.

While traceability systems can provide a sense of security from extreme abuse, they are not a panacea for the exploitation of migrant workers at sea. Without well-intended migration policy interventions from the Thai government, it cannot achieve better labour rights and living conditions among migrant fishworkers.

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