Slavery on Thai Fishing Ships
Forced fishing has become a growing issue in Thailand within the past few years, increased by a demand for cheap seafood and a limited ability to find willing workers. The fishing industry is massive in Thailand, with jobs related to fishing and aquaculture currently providing employment to millions. In 2008 41.3 percent of jobs related to the fishing industry were in Thailand, which is a number largely influenced by the country’s location, with its long coastline and plentiful fishing grounds (Fischman 230). A total of 85.5 percent fishing laborers and fish farmers worldwide lived in Asia as of that time (Fischman 230). This has left a large portion of the world reliant on Thailand to produce seafood and has left Thailand very dependent on the fishing industry for its revenue from exports. These factors all contribute to the fishing industry in Thailand becoming a breeding ground for human trafficking in recent years. And indeed, human trafficking is abundant in the seafood sector, with the 2015 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons report finding instances of fishing related human trafficking in more than 40 countries (Verité 3). Out of those 40 countries, Thailand continues to be one its worst contributors.
Because of many detractors, including exhausting work conditions and unreliable pay, many local Thai men are reluctant to work in the fishing industry, leaving it with a 10,000-job labor shortage in 2011 (Sylwester 427). To compensate for this gap, men and boys are migrated from nearby countries, notably Cambodia and Laos. They are then tricked or coerced
into working on fishing ships, often in harsh working conditions for up to years at a time (Fischman 230). Unfortunately, it can be all too easy for captors to trick hopeful migrants into these “jobs.” Migrants are often convinced into crossing the border with promises of well-paying work not in the fishing industry, then are put on boats once they arrive. They then receive either low or no compensation for their work for up to years at a time (Siciliano). The living conditions that these men are kept in amount to abuse, as does their lack of fair pay, and this issue is more prevalent than ever. The combination of these conditions has created multiple human rights violations that require urgent attention. Forced fishing in Thailand is a human rights violation because the men and boys trafficked have their rights to free choice of work and equal pay, freedom of movement, and life and security forcibly taken from them while working in inhumane conditions.
Fish boat owners take full advantage of these trafficked men and have found ways to keep them from changing employers while giving them little to no pay. Although recent changes to Thailand’s legislation were made with the mission of lowering instances of trafficking, not only have they been ineffective, but they may have given slave owners a new way to keep hold of their captives. A “pink card” government registration scheme was introduced in 2014 with the purpose of lowering the number of undocumented migrants working in Thailand, but, in fact, it has caused more problems than it solved. Under this new system, workers must acquire permission of their employer to change jobs, which only gives boat owners a new way to keep workers trapped on their ships (Human Rights Watch). This scheme also often results in lower pay for these men; to work around laws that guarantee worker’s a minimum wage, employees are simply made to sign documents agreeing to a lower wage and receiving paychecks only every six months on average (Verité 13). These factors add up to creating an environment that works in
the employer’s favor and against the worker, which leaves these migrants even more vulnerable to their captor’s will.
Boat owners also have other, more physical, means of keeping workers captive. It’s nearly impossible to escape a boat while in the middle of the sea, so boats are kept from harbor anywhere from months to years at a time (Siciliano). Other larger cargo vessels will meet the smaller fishing boats at sea to exchange fish cargo for food and supplies, which is what allows these boats to stay out at sea for such a long time (Fischman 231). It’s easy to keep men trapped when there’s nowhere but empty water to escape to. If, despite these odds, a worker attempts to escape, the consequences are immediate and cruel. Many of the testimonies from rescued victims show the heartbreaking conditions these men are kept in. According to one rescued victim, “My boss used bad words toward me, beat me, forced me to do hard work, and threatened me that if I braved to run, he would shoot me … It was not safe” (qtd. in Fischman 227).
Physical abuse and threats to safety are unfortunately not uncommon, and boat captains have very little regard for their crews’ safety. Not only are beatings a regular occurrence, but even murder is commonplace on the high seas. An estimated fifty-nine percent of forty-nine surveyed rescued victims had witnessed a murder in a study conducted by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (Fischman 231). These numbers reveal a depressing truth about the harsh realities these crew members face; the captains do not care if they survive. According to one former fishermen, “Fishermen could die anytime, but the captains would not care. If they die, they will just be thrown away” (qtd. in McDowell, et al.). So, captives not only face government red tape, years stuck at sea, and little to no pay, but they must be in constant fear for their lives as well.
So, what has allowed this issue to remain so prevalent? One of the sadly simple explanations is a response to supply and demand. The worldwide demand for cheap fish is continually growing, with the US alone importing 34 billion in seafood in 2015 (Siciliano). As one of the primary exporters of seafood internationally, Thailand is one of the countries under the most pressure. To meet global demand, illegal overfishing near shorelines has meant that boats are pushed further and further from shore to find fish. The further the boats are pushed from shore, the longer the amount of time they are kept out at sea, and the greater the costs to fish boat owners (Sylwester). This causes fish boat owners to look for cheaper and cheaper labor to offset those greater costs.
Fish boat owners seeking lower labor costs are not the only primary contributors to the problem, as they are not the only ones seeking to make a profit off slave labor. A lack of legislation regarding fishing vessels, as well as local government corruption, has made it easier for fish boat owners looking for cheap labor to evade the law. The previously mentioned “pink card” registration scheme has not only made it easier for slave boat owners to hold on to their captors, but other efforts made by the local government to curb forced fishing have been inept as well. A program was introduced by the Thai government in 2014 to search boats, and check with workers when boats came to shore, to look for evidence of forced fishing. To date, the program has yet to report a single found instance of forced fishing (Human Rights Watch). This inability may very well be influenced by the fact that evidence has been found of Thai police, as well as immigration officers, profiting from human trafficking (The Enviromental Justice Foundation).
To the perpetrators, trafficking migrant workers from other countries is often viewed as a necessary due to increasing costs and difficulties in finding local workers. As boats must be kept out at ocean for longer periods of time because of overfishing, not only do fish boat owners see a need to reduce costs, but they also have a harder time finding willing workers. Also, because of the large international demand for cheap seafood, even more pressure has been put on boat captains to find ever cheaper work, which is another reason they prefer migrant workers. This demand in no way justifies the horrendous treatment the migrant men and boys are treated to. A need for cheap labor does not justify paying well below minimum wage received up to six months late, tricking men into jobs that were not what they were promised or forcing them to exist in conditions that threaten their physical safety.
Forced fishing in Thailand is a globally prominent issue and, while there have been steps made by both local and international governments to curb slavery on fishing boats, it is still a very real and active problem. Victims are being held against their will and forced to work in untenable conditions on these fishing fleets, which are still the main exporters for fish internationally. Forced fishing is not just a case of poor working conditions, it is a case of multiple human rights violations, making this a problem that must be addressed in a more aggressive and logical manner. Therefore, this pressure must come from the countries who are creating the demand for Thailand’s seafood exports.
In recent years, there has been international pressure put on Thailand to increase its regulation of fishing vessels, namely from the United States and the European Union (EU). Thailand has been placed on a “yellow card” card warning, which means it could face a ban on exporting food to the EU. In addition, Thailand was placed by the United States on the Tier 2 watchlist in its most recent Trafficking in Persons report (Human Rights Watch). Being placed on Tier 2 means that perpetrators charged with human trafficking will face harsher penalties, with especially harsh penalties for any who are deemed to be affiliated with an “organized criminal group” (IOM 6). The downside to these reactions is that they remain only as threats; harsher penalties from the United States for human trafficking don’t mean much if no one is caught, and so far, the “yellow card” warning has only managed to convince local government to make superficial changes that have not successfully helped the problem.
As previously stated, the local Thailand government has made changes to their legislation in response to international pressure, which on the surface appeared at first to help. However, even with the issue of local government corruption, which has led to laws that work against the victims instead of for them, and despite evidence that local changes have not made an impact on forced fishing, local authorities have been trying to convince international governments and retailers that the problem has been resolved. Mongkol Sukchareonkana, affiliated with Thailand’s National Fisheries Association, has been quoted stating, “In the past, we used illegal labor … But now, things have changed completely” (qtd. in Human Rights Watch). Sadly, this is not the case.
The global pressure already put on Thailand has not been enough to create a meaningful change, and now other steps should be considered to help stop slavery on fishing ships. The pressure must be increased, and more regulations must come from the countries importing seafood from Thailand. Seafood is Thailand’s primary export by far, and if threats from international parties to ban imports have not convinced local government to make meaningful change, a ban may. Granted, a ban on the globe’s primary seafood exporter would likely cause an outcry from citizens when the prices of seafood were raised, and it would put additional pressure on food retailers. If that’s not possible, in lieu of a full ban, the US and EU should place stricter regulations on the food retailers purchasing imported food from Thailand. This would likely be difficult to enforce, but if more money is also allocated to investigations into evidence of forced fishing, it would be more likely to be effective. However difficult it may be to attack a such a pervasive problem, forced fishing is modern slavery, and fish caught on modern-day slave ships feed billions globally. This is a global problem, and all countries involved must take responsibility and keep taking further action until a real change has been made.
The Environmental Justice Foundation. Sold to the Sea – Human Trafficking in Thailand’s Fishing Industry. Humanity United, Mar. 2013, un-act.org/publication/view/sold-sea-human-trafficking-thailands-fishing-industry/.
Fischman, Katharine. “Adrift in the Sea: The Impact of the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015 on Forced Labor in the Thai Fishing Industry.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, Winter 2017, pp. 227-252. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.scottsdalecc.edu:2443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/ login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=122997355 &site=ehost-live.
Human Rights Watch. “Thailand: Forced Labor, Trafficking Persist in Fishing Fleets.” Human Rights Watch, 23 Jan. 2018, www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/23/thailand-forced-labor-trafficking-persist-fishing-fleets.
International Organization for Migration (IOM). Trafficking of Fishermen in Thailand. 14 Jan. 2011, www.iom.int/jahia/webdav/shared/shared/mainsite/activities/countries /docs/thailand/Trafficking-of-Fishermen-Thailand.pdf.
McDowell, Robin, Mendoza, Martha, and Marie Mason. “Human Trafficking Caught on the High Seas.” The Epoch Times, Jul 28, 2015, pp. A1, A6-A7, ProQuest, s2443-ezproxyscottsdalecc-edu.ezproxy.scottsdalecc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquestcom.ezproxy.scottsdalecc.edu/docview/1797275583?accountid=227.
Sutton, Trevor and Siciliano, Avery. “Seafood Slavery.” Center for American Progress, 15 Dec. 2016, www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2016/12/15/295088 /seafoodslavery/.
Sylwester, Joanna G. “Fishers of Men: The Neglected Effects of Environmental Depletion on Labor Trafficking in the Thai Fishing Industry.” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, vol. 23, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 423-459. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.scottsdalecc.edu:2443/login? url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=96267184&site=ehost-live.
Verité. Recruitment Practices and Migrant Labor Conditions in Nestlé’s Thai Shrimp Supply Chain: An Examination of Forced Labor and other Human Rights Risks Endemic to the Thai Seafood Sector. Nov. 2016, www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11 /NestleReport-ThaiShrimp_prepared-by-Verite.pdf.