A fishing boat with Myanmar migrant and Thai workers leaving a port in the Thai coastal province of Samut Sakhon. A 'mafia' of recruitment agents is trapping Myanmar migrants to Thailand in debt bondage despite a 2017 law meant to fight exploitation in the kingdom's notoriously shadowy job market, activists and workers say. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Donald Trump will suspend trade preferences for Thailand’s seafood industry after it failed to take steps to improve worker rights, dealing a blow to the multi-billion dollar sector.

Thailand is the world’s third largest seafood exporter, but its supplier status has been badly tainted in recent years by reports of slave labor and trafficking among the mainly migrant workforce.

All Thai seafood products will lose their eligibility for the trade preferences due to “longstanding worker rights issues in the seafood and shipping industries,” it was widely reported on Saturday, quoting the Office of the US Trade Representative.

The suspension of the trade preferences – said to be worth US$1.3 billion – will go into effect on April 25, 2020, according to a letter sent Friday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I have determined that Thailand is not taking steps to afford workers in Thailand internationally recognized worker rights … it is appropriate to suspend the duty-free treatment,” Trump said in the letter.

Under the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, eligible countries are able to import certain goods into the US duty-free.

Other items losing duty-free preferences include fruit and vegetables, garment products and electrical appliances.

According to the Office of the US Trade Representative, Made-In-Thailand exports to the US totaled $31.9 billion in 2018, with electrical machinery making up the majority of goods coming in.

The US suspension comes despite the European Union recently striking Thailand from its warning list in January, seeing efforts made by the government to tackle illegal fishing.

Thailand had been on the list since 2015 after allegations of rampant labor rights abuses in its fishing fleets.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division applauded the move Saturday, calling Thailand’s enforcement of worker protections “pathetic.”

“For years, Thailand has failed to protect both Thai and migrant workers from neighboring countries from unscrupulous employers who fire anyone that stands up to demand their rights,” Robertson said. “Reform is long overdue.”

Thailand’s government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat on Saturday declined to comment on the suspension.


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