Migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar are being used as forced labour in the Thai fishing industry. Using tricks of deception, non-binding verbal agreements and induced debt, these workers catch fish both for human consumption and the pet food industry. Now, a new report from Greenpeace Southeast Asia exposes how crackdowns on human rights abuse in the Thai fishing industry has forced vessels to operate further...decreasing their chances of being caught and continuing their illegal practices out of sight, out at sea.
Burmese workers sort freshly-landed fish at the public fishing port in Ranong, southern Thailand.
Last year, the Associated Press exposed human rights violations in Thailand’s notorious fishing industry, sending shockwaves around the world. At the heart of the tragedy lay the often callous and illegal activities of companies in Thailand’s distant water fishing sector. Consumers around the globe were inspecting their cans of tuna and wondering what horrors they were buying with their seafood.
When the threat of enforcement and straightening things up are imminent, the fleet chose to ship out rather than shape up, and now a new Greenpeace Southeast Asia report, Turn the Tide, reveals cases of human rights abuse continuing onboard Thai distant water fishing vessels up to 2016. The fleet discussed in the report is known to supply to global seafood markets, particularly the food service and pet food sector.
Port workers unload fish from a vessel docked at the public fishing port in Ranong, southern Thailand.
The vessels in question are mainly bottom trawlers and huge refrigerated cargo vessels, or reefers, capable of hauling thousands of tons of fish at a time. The reefers enable the trawlers to stay at sea for many months at a time so they can kill as many fish as they want, far from prying eyes and regulation. With the fishing fleets operating in distant places, such as the environmentally sensitive Saya de Malha Bank in the Indian Ocean, the reefers pick up fish to trans-ship to Thai ports for processing, deliver supplies, and sometimes trafficked workers.
Many of the crew onboard these ships are migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar, who meet the internationally-accepted definitions of victims of forced labour. By their own accounts, the sea had swallowed up their hopes and dreams.
In January, Greenpeace Southeast Asia went to Ranong province, southern Thailand to investigate reports of deaths of fishers on two Thai trawlers returning from the Saya de Malha Bank. At the time, there were reported outbreaks of Beriberi - a disease, caused by thiamine (B1) deficiency, that affects both the cardiovascular and the nervous systems - in the Thai fishing fleet.
Greenpeace Southeast Asia interviewed Cambodian crew members who worked on one of the Thai vessels. They spoke of nine continuous months at sea, working extremely long hours, with only three to four hours of rest per day, and no time off. To make things worse, they were fed a very poor diet. The survivors explained how supplies would be transshipped at sea roughly every 90 days, by reefers coming from the Thai port of Samut Sakhon to the Saya de Malha Bank. Fresh vegetables and meat would be finished after 10 and 20 days, respectively — and the rest of the time the crew’s diet was polished white rice and fish. Daily exhaustion and poor diets made the men sick and weak. Some to the point of death.
A Cambodian fisherman recovers from beriberi at Ranong Hospital. Thai government investigations determined that the hospitalisations and deaths from beriberi outbreak aboard these vessels were directly caused by a business model based on transshipment at sea.
The men told stories of deception and exploitation by the vessel operators, who deceived them about the true nature of their employment, the terms of their contract, and their pay.
A crew member interviewed by Greenpeace claimed that fishers would incur around THB 20,000 (US$571) in debt to a broker before even stepping aboard. On top of this would be an advance of THB 30,000 (US$857), to cover supplies or send home to their families. The crew member reported that the men would work have to work for around six months to pay that first debt off before becoming eligible to request another advance.
Deceiving migrants is a typical strategy for trafficking workers into the Thai fishing industry, and deceptive recruitment arrangements are commonly used to trick people into debt bondage and trafficking. All of the 15 victims interviewed by Greenpeace also claimed their families reported that brokers were deducting significant portions, up to 50%, of the advances paid to workers against their earnings.
Juvenile sharks on sale at the public fishing port in Ranong, southern Thailand. Thai gillnetters would catch a variety of fish from the Saya de Malha Bank, including a reported 50% by-catch of sharks.
This vicious cycle of human trafficking, abuse and exploitation, aided by illegal transshipments at sea, must end. To ensure that fishing is regulated and that workers’ rights are protected from abuse and exploitation, transhipment at sea must be banned. Support for such a measure is growing quickly across governments, industry and NGOs. The evidence in this report only strengthens the case for action. If the Thai government is serious about addressing the challenges in its fishing fleet it needs to act quickly on this issue.
Alongside government, the Thai seafood and fishing industry has an obligation to be more accountable and to provide fair compensation to its workforce. After all, these hardworking fishermen allow the industry to exist and prosper.
Anchalee Pipattanawattanakul is the Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok, Thailand