NGOs Urge EU to Keep Thai Feet to Fire on Fishery Slavery

A wide coalition of human rights, labor and environmental organizations is asking the European Commission to continue pressure on Thailand to end notorious abuses including outright slavery in the country’s fishing industry.

The coalition, of 29 different organizations ranging from the AFL-CIO to Greenpeace to Human Rights Watch to international legal and other entities are urging the EU to extend its “yellow card” designation for at least another six months to force Bangkok to implement an action plan that goes beyond legal reforms and focuses “effective enforcement to ensure substantial, measurable progress toward legal, sustainable and ethical fisheries products and the protection of the rights of all workers.”

The country’s fishery industry has been under attack from a wide range of critics over the brutal conditions faced by workers dragooned onto fishing boats by brokers who sell them into slavery, where they are forced to work for years under sordid conditions. The widespread publicity over the abuses has led major seafood chains in the United States and Europe to cancel orders with Thai companies until the provenance of their products can be verified.

Human Rights Watch, in a 2015 report, said “The reputation of the Thai fishing industry is already suffering from critical coverage by the international media that has documented the use of forced labour and human trafficking. International and Thai companies buying Thai seafood have had to increase their scrutiny over their purchases of seafood originating in Thailand to try and avoid buying products produced by forced labour, and some international companies have already decided simply not to source seafood from Thailand rather than deal with that risk.”

The action by the EU, according to the coalition, “has already brought about significant legal reforms and changes in the ways that the Thai government monitors and seeks to manage marine resources and control fishing operations. But it is unclear whether effective enforcement of these new regulations will be achieved once the EU lifts immediate pressure.”

Thailand, as the letter points out, is famous for producing documents that have little to do with reality or the impact on the problems they seek to address. Since 1963 the country has acknowledged the serious depletion of fish stocks, but did nothing about it until 2015. The country has had national action plans in place to combat human trafficking since at least 2004, but labor trafficking on fishing vessels has continued unabated.

It describes the linkages between illegal fishing and forced labor as increasingly apparent as fishing vessels travel farther out and stay out longer.

“In order to remain profitable, workers at sea are required to work longer hours and fish in remote areas with fewer visits to shore, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse, including forced labor. Thailand should be pressured to investigate and prosecute unscrupulous fleet owners and captains who are willing to break laws to make unsustainable practices seem profitable.

At the end of 2015, the Thai parliament adopted some monitoring, control and surveillance measures that, if properly and fully enforced, could help it gain control over rampant human trafficking in the seafood sector. Increased Thai Navy inspections of fishing craft have been introduced, ”but we have yet to see whether the current arrangement will be an improvement over the previous system, which lacked interpreters to communicate with migrant workers and in some cases failed to provide an opportunity for fishers to speak with officials without being closely observed by the captain and other officers on board who could retaliate against them.”

Despite claims that it is taking the human trafficking problem seriously, letter notes, “the Thai government has done little to hold government officials complicit in trafficking accountable for their crimes and demonstrate such action through well-publicized prosecutions, successful convictions and appropriate deterrent penalties.”

It cites the case of Police Gen. Paween Pongsirin, the lead investigator into government complicity in Rohingya boat people trafficked on the Thai/Malaysia border. Paween fled for his life to Australia after receiving death threats and facing a transfer ito an area where his life ws in danger.

“Rather than protect the investigator, senior Thai police are now considering charging him with criminal defamation,” the letter notes, an action that is frequently used to silence critics. The Thai Navy famously sued two journalists for criminal defamation and violating the Computer Crimes Act simply because they reproduced portions of an article by Reuters alleging naval forces’ involvement in trafficking.

International pressure resulted in their acquittal, although public prosecutors successfully applied for several extensions requesting more time for the Royal Thai Navy to appeal the acquittal, with no notice to the defendants. Witnesses in human trafficking prosecutions against government officials have also been harassed and threatened without the perpetrators facing serious consequences.

In addition, Thailand has done very little to change legal structures that govern the rights of migrant workers that must be addressed to make anti-trafficking efforts viable and sustainable. Thailand’s current push to register migrant fishers is similar to previous migrant registration efforts in that it provides temporary working documents but still falls short in fixing the complex, expensive registration system that makes workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by labour brokers.

“The European Union cannot be confident that Thailand has sufficiently addressed illegalities in its seafood sector, including forced labor and human trafficking, until the government of Thailand demonstrates sustained enforcement and meaningful results,” the letter concludes. “Thailand should demonstrate the political will and enforcement capacity required to investigate and uncover egregious human rights violations in seafood production, prosecute perpetrators, ensure protection of human rights defenders and journalists from judicial and other harassment. Migrant workers must be prevented from further abuses by recognizing their right to freedom of association and improving the systems that govern how they find employment, maintain legal working status and access justice.”