A young Burmese fisher sorts trash fish onboard a trawler in Laem Sing, Chantaburi, November 11, 2016. 

© 2016 Daniel Murphy for Human Rights Watch

(Bangkok) – The Thai government has failed to address widespread labor rights abuses in Thailand’s fishing fleets, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to senior European Union officials. 

Human Rights Watch urged the EU to renew efforts for serious reforms of Thai policies and practices to effectively curtail forced labor and other abusive treatment of migrant fishing workers. 

“The Thai government’s reforms in the fishing industry still fall far short of resolving serious labor rights abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should use its leverage as a major seafood importer to demand changes to improve the lives of migrant fishing workers on Thai vessels.” 

Under pressure from the EU and other governments, the Thai government adopted a series of reforms to improve labor rights in the fishing industry. But since the much-publicized consultation between the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment and the Thai Ministry of Labour on May 16-17, 2018, in Brussels, little has improved. 

Migrant workers still enter into fishing work in debt bondage, and are prevented from changing employers, not paid on time, and paid below the minimum wage, as documented in Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report, “Hidden Chains: Rights Abuses and Forced Labor in Thailand’s Fishing Industry.”

Human Rights Watch found that captains compelled predominantly Burmese and Cambodian fishing workers to work overtime hours well beyond those set out in law. Boat owners and captains violated legal requirements to pay wages at least monthly, frequently paying fishing workers once every six months – or in some cases once a year at subminimum wages. A reform requiring monthly wage payments by electronic bank transfer has been thwarted by unscrupulous captains who keep the fishing workers’ ATM cards and bank books. 

Boat owners did not provide written contracts or copies, or explain the contracts to the fishing workers. Captains continued to seize migrant workers’ documents in violation of the law. Threats, intimidation, and physical violence by captains, officers, and fleet owners against fishing workers were still reported.

Thai government reforms have been neither effective nor adequate to improve complaint processes and monitoring to ensure that fishing workers are able to change employers without obstruction, Human Rights Watch said. Labor inspections at Port-in, Port-out (PIPO) checkpoints remained perfunctory and primarily consisted of a document check. Similarly, inspections at sea often failed to follow basic procedures necessary to protect workers when providing information about possible onboard abuses. 

Migrant workers in Thailand’s fishing industry still do not receive sufficient legal protections, Human Rights Watch said. The Labour Relations Act of 1975 prohibits workers without Thai nationality from formally establishing a labor union or being a member of a labor union committee. Without the ability to organize a union, migrant workers have few avenues to demand their rights and become extremely vulnerable to retaliation by boat captains, fleet owners, and abusive officials.

In June, the Thai government fulfilled an important pledge by ratifying the International Labour Organization (ILO) Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention (No. 29). The government should immediately take all necessary steps to ensure that it is implemented effectively. The Thai government should also ratify ILO Conventions on Freedom of Association (No. 87) and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (No. 98), Human Rights Watch said. 

“Thailand needs to make genuine progress, not just paper reforms, to address labor rights abuses on Thai fishing fleets,” Adams said. “The EU should further press Thailand to protect the rights, health, and safety of migrant fishing workers. European consumers should be confident that their seafood from Thailand does not involve trafficked or forced labor.”