Exposing the underbelly of the Thai fishing industry

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Feature story - December 15, 2016
Migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar are being used as victims of forced labour in the Thai fishing industry. Using tricks of deception, non-binding verbal agreements and induced debt, these workers are the same people working for both human consumption and the pet food industry. Now, a new Greenpeace report exposes how crackdowns on human rights abuse in the Thai fishing industry has forced vessels to operate further...lessening their culpability to being caught and continuing their illegal practices out of sight, out at sea.

Fishermen unload trash fish in Ranong, southern Thailand.

In 2015, an expose by the Associate Press on human rights violations in Thailand’s notorious fishing industry sent shockwaves around the world. At the heart of the globe-spanning tragedy lay the often callous and illegal activities of companies in Thailand’s distant water fishing sector. Consumers everywhere were inspecting their tuna cans and wondering what horrors they were buying with their seafood.

The Thai Government tried to make the industry shape up, but instead, the fleets shipped out. Now a new Greenpeace report, Turn the Tide, reveals cases of human rights abuse continuing onboard Thai distant water fishing vessels during much of 2016. This particular fleet is known to supply to global seafood markets, particularly the food service and pet food sector.

The vessels in question are mainly bottom trawlers and huge refrigerated cargo vessels, also known as reefers, capable of hauling over 19,000 tons of fish at a time, and travelling great distances as far as the Saya de Malha Bank in the Indian Ocean. The trawlers can stay at sea for several months enabling them to catch as much fish as they want, away from prying eyes and regulation. The reefers then pick up and transship the fish back  to Thai ports for processing, as well as deliver supplies-- even 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.

Tuna gillnetters Kor Navamongkolchai 1 and Kor Navamongkolchai 8 dock in Ranong on the Thailand-Myanmar border. Greenpeace investigations have uncovered that these vessels have been engaged in both human trafficking and IUU fishing in the Indian Ocean.

In January 2016, Greenpeace traveled to Ranong province, southern Thailand to investigate reports of deaths among fishers on two Thai trawlers returning from the Saya de Malha Bank. At the time, there were reported outbreaks of Beriberi - a disease that affects both the cardiovascular and the nervous systems as a result of thiamine (B1) deficiency - among the Thai fishing fleets.

Greenpeace interviewed the Cambodian crew members who worked on a Thai vessel. They recounted how they were continuously at sea for nine months, working extremely long days-- with only three to four hours of rest in any day-- and no time off. To make matters worse, the crew 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 — which meant that most of the time the crew’s diet consisted of polished white rice and fish. Daily exhaustion and poor diets led to these men getting sick and weak, to the point of death. 

Aside from health hazards, interviews with crew members revealed stories of deception and exploitation by the vessel operators, who deceived workers about the true nature of their employment, the terms of their contract, and their remuneration.  

A senior crew member interviewed by Greenpeace claimed that fishers would incur around THB 20,000 (USD 571) in debt to a broker before even stepping aboard the vessel. Added to this would be an advance of THB 30,000 (USD 857), to spend on supplies or send home to their families. The senior crew member reported that the men would work for approximately six months to pay this off before being eligible to request another advance from the vessel operator. 

 Workers take a break after unloading fish from Sor Somboon 19. Initial screenings conducted by Greenpeace revealed that crew from this Thai trawler met internationally-accepted definitions of forced labour.

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 15 of the victims interviewed by Greenpeace also claimed their families had reported brokers were deducting significant portions, up to 50%, of the advances paid against their earnings.

Non-binding verbal agreements, inflated recruitment fees and induced debt, excessive working hours and chaotic payment systems all significantly increase opportunities for the exploitation and abuse of workers.

This vicious cycle of human trafficking, abuse and exploitation-- aided by illegal transshipments at sea-- must end. The Thai government must completely ban transshipment activities to ensure that the fishing is regulated and that workers’ rights are protected from abuse and exploitation.

Burmese workers repair nets aboard a Thai purse seiner docked in Samut Sakhon, central Thailand.

The Thai seafood and fishing industry must keep itself in check, be more accountable and be able to provide just compensation to their workforce. After all, these hardworking fishermen are the very reason why the industry exists and continues to prosper.

Anchalee Pipattanawattanakul is the Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok, Thailand 

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