Migrant fishery workers at a port in Mahachai, on the outskirts of Bangkok in a June 30, 2015 file photo. Photo: AFP/ Nicolas Asfouri

Slave labor and rights abuses still plague Thailand’s fishing industry despite major reforms recently introduced by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military government, Human Rights Watch has said in a new report.

The report, “Hidden Chains: Forced Labor and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry”, and a 15-minute film were released today at a briefing at the European Parliament in Brussels.

The 134-page report says fishermen from neighboring countries are still being trafficked to work on Thai boats, prevented from changing employers, not paid on time, and paid less than the minimum wage. “Migrant workers do not receive Thai labor law protections and do not have the right to form a labor union,” it says.

The rights group interviewed 248 current and former fishermen, mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia, at all major Thai fishing ports over the past three years, including dozens who allegedly were trafficked and 153 who are still fishing. They also spoke with Thai officials, boat owners and captains, civil society activists, fishing association representatives and United Nations staff.

“Consumers in Europe, the US, and Japan should be confident that their seafood from Thailand did not involve trafficked or forced labor,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “Despite high-profile commitments by the Thai government to clean up the fishing industry, problems are rampant.”

Media exposes about killings, beatings and virtual slave labor on Thai fishing vessels prompted the European Union to issue a ‘yellow card’ in April 2015, warning Thailand that it could face a ban on exporting seafood to Europe because of its illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices.

It said Thailand should undertake reforms to end the abuses. The US also put the country on its Tier 2 Watch List in its annual Trafficking in Persons, or TIP, report.

The Thai government responded by issuing a new law to regulate the industry and end gross abuses. Fishermen were required to have legal documents and be put on crew lists when boats depart and return to port. A system was also set up to require boats to report for inspections before and after returning to port, with procedures to also inspect vessels at sea.

HRW’s report is not all critical. Measures for monitoring vessels and limiting their time at sea to 30 days “have led to important improvements”, the group said. But the labor inspection regime was “largely a theatrical exercise for international consumption” because officials speak mainly to captains and boat owners and check documents, but rarely interview crew-members, the report said.

Despite significant resources allocated to the Labor Ministry, there was no effective system to inspect crews on board Thai vessels. In 2015 “they failed to identify a single case of forced labor” among 474,334 fishery workers. And more than 50,000 inspections did not reveal a single instance of regulations being abused in regard to conditions of work, wages and labor rights.

A Myanmar migrant worker sorts fish at a wholesale market for fish and other seafood in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon province, Thailand, July 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Requirements that fishermen retain their identification documents, receive a written contract, and get paid monthly were being frustrated by employers, the report said, as crew members were held in debt bondage to ensure they can’t change employers.

“The Thai government’s lack of commitment means that regulations and programs to prevent forced labor in the fishing industry are failing,” Adams said. “International producers, buyers and retailers of Thai seafood have a key role in ensuring that forced labor and other abuses come to an end.”

The group also claimed the government’s “pink card” registration scheme, introduced in 2014 to reduce the number of undocumented migrants, created an environment ripe for abuse by tying fishermen to specific locations and employers whose permission is needed to change jobs.

Unscrupulous ship owners and skippers were “concealing coercion and deception behind a veneer of compliance”, as complacent officials simply rely on documents submitted by fishing companies as proof of compliance.

Thai labor law also makes it difficult for migrant workers to assert their rights because they are prohibited from establishing a union. Fishing crews feared retaliation and abuse by boat captains and vessel owners because they cannot take collective action.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (L) sits with Thailand’s Royal Army Chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart on a boat, on October 5, 2016. Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom/File Photo

“No one should be fooled by regulations that look good on paper but are not properly enforced,” Adams said. “The EU and US urgently need to increase pressure on Thailand to protect the rights, health, and safety of fishers.”

The latest allegations will hit the Prayuth government’s anti-trafficking credentials but the report’s findings can hardly be a surprise. The Thai fishing industry has been mired by slavery and appalling abuses for decades.

The vast size of the sector and fact that most employees are migrants from neighboring poorer countries have negated moves to clean up even processing facilities at Thai ports.

Major seafood firms such as Thai Union Group have been working hard to try to show their supply chains are free of crews trafficked from nearby countries and treated like slaves.

But observers say corruption and official complacency is deeply engrained, partly because government leaders – whether in uniform or not – have rarely had the nerve to upset industry chiefs as seafood exports earn the country over US$7 billion a year and are a vital component of the trade-geared economy.

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