Fishermen mostly from Myanmar and Thailand are rescued in 2015 by Indonesian and Thai officials on remote Benjina island in Maluku province. Jakarta set up a team to investigate slavery in the industry, as these men were sent home. Photo: AFP/ Ugeng Nugroho /Ministry of Fishery

The Thai government voted last week to ratify the International Labor Organization Convention on Work in Fishing (No 188). Thailand is the first Asian country to ratify the convention, which was first adopted by the international labor group more than a decade ago.

Rights and labor organizations have been pushing for Thailand and many other Asian nations to ratify Convention No 188, which sets a standard for working conditions on fishing vessels and is seen as an important step toward eliminating labor abuses in the supply chains of international brands that get seafood from Thailand.

The Thai Seafood Working Group has made advocating for Thailand to ratify Convention 188 a top priority for 2018.

The move was described as a welcome development by Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), but she said Thailand – which has faced possible trade sanctions by the European Union because of years of gross abuses by fishing and fish-processing companies based in the kingdom – still had more to do.

The ILRF head said: “There is still much work to be done, however, to protect the rights of workers, especially migrant workers, in Thailand. The country has yet to ratify the ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (No 87) and the ILO Convention on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (No 98), both of which are essential to protecting the rights of not only fishers, but all workers in Thailand.

“For real change to happen for workers, Thailand must allow migrant workers to form their own independent and democratic trade unions.

“Until ILO C87 and C98 are ratified and all three conventions are fully integrated into national law and enforced, workers will remain in conditions where they are vulnerable to various forms of abuse, including forced labor.”

Foreign workers’ union

However, the current military government headed by General Prayut Chan-ocha does not appear to agree with workers from Myanmar having a union in Thailand to argue for their rights – something local employers are unlikely to endorse, largely because workers from neighboring countries have long been seen as cheap labor that ensures low costs and healthy profits for the fishing, construction and other sectors.

Gearhart, who is based in Washington, noted in a press release that representatives from the Royal Thai Government testified at the US Trade Representative’s Generalized System of Preferences country practice hearing last Thursday.

“Both in their pre-hearing statement and in yesterday’s testimony, the Thai government claimed that in public consultations considering changes to Thailand’s Labor Relations Act, ‘all parties disagree[d] to allow the employees without Thai nationality [to form] a labor union.’”

She said the Thai government stakeholder consultations “largely did not include the views of the human-rights groups, labor rights organizations, and unions, which have been calling for reforms.”

“Therefore, to claim that ‘all parties’ did not support migrant workers’ rights to form unions is disingenuous and misleading. This misrepresentation further confirms the Thai government’s systematic efforts to suppress the rights of migrant workers, who make up 90% of the fishing industry’s workforce.

“The Thai government’s ratification of ILO C188 is a welcome step forward; however, the efforts to improve working conditions in Thailand cannot stop here. Businesses must continue to push Thailand to meet international standards to respect workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and to mitigate the risks of forced labor, child labor, and human trafficking occurring in their global supply chains.

“Allowing migrant workers to form unions and ratifying ILO C87 and C98 must be Thailand’s next steps in addressing the concerns that have been raised internationally,” she said.

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