Migrant workers employed in the fishing industry, are especially vulnerable to human trafficking, slavery, forced labour or debt bondage due to the very nature of their work. Isolated, often operating far away from the shore and in hazardous conditions, they are trapped at sea. Thailand is ranked as the third largest seafood exporter in the world, with an estimated 222,000 migrant workers employed in the seafood factories and approximately 71,000 working on board of the fishing vessels. In recent years, Thai fishing industry has been scrutinized due to labour rights and human rights abuse in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices.

The abuse of human rights was also exposed by the NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (for example a report by Human Rights Watch). They found out that, on board the fishing vessels, migrants work in slavery-like conditions, more than 18 hours a day, seven days a week in extreme circumstances. Fishermen have their passport or other documents confiscated upon arrival and are victims of physical and emotional abuse, daily threats and violence, and are deprived of sleep and food and drugged to work harder and longer. Some fishermen spend several years trapped at sea without reaching a port. When they manage to escape, they usually end up being arrested for staying irregularly, sent to a detention centre or caught by the traffickers and sent back to another fishing boat.

For these practices and insufficient efforts to address human trafficking Thailand was heavily criticized by the international community. In 2015 Thailand was downgraded to Tier 3 by the US State Department Trafficking in Persons report. In the same year, the European Union issued a ‘yellow card’ to Thailand over the existence of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities (IUU), which also related to the forced labour and trafficking within the fishing industry. Failure to prove that the Royal Thai Government had made sufficient efforts to handle these issues could have led to high economic sanctions and ban on importing.

The pressure on the Royal Thai Government resulted in a general reform and implementation of protection mechanisms for migrant workers and prevention of human trafficking. Special policies were also implemented in the fishing industry. The measures deployed by the Thai Government include reporting systems for boat owners and ensuring better working conditions on board of the boats. Thai Royal Ordinance of Fisheries 2015 requires boat owners to inform authorities of departures and arrivals of boats, the catch in each trip, and other details at the port in/port out centre (PIPO). The system of reporting the number of crewmembers was established to prevent trafficking in fishing vessels. In the regulation from 2014 the Ministry of Labour required employers to also follow certain methods of payment, ensuring that first aid is available and that bathroom hygiene standards are maintained.

Despite all regulations and the upgrading to Tier 2 in 2016, the current monitoring system is not working properly yet. Reports have recorded some improvement in working conditions, payment and decline in child labour practices in the fishing industry. However, abusive labour practices such as document retention, extensive working hours, payment lower than minimum wage, salary withholding and restrictions on mobility can still be identified. ILO and Human Rights Watch discovered that government agencies including PIPO centre and One Stop Service (OSS) Centre lack in staff and, due to excessive amount of paperwork, are not able to conduct substantial screening interviews identifying migrants potentially at risk.

Additionally, in many cases employers use a third party to handle all paperwork for migrant workers. Employers tend to seek the services of brokers, which leads to additional operational costs for migrants, weakening workers negotiation power and encouraging the withholding of documents. Migrant workers, whose access to legal documents has been restrained, have limited possibilities of changing employer as leaving their job will lead to loss of their paperwork and becoming undocumented, hence, vulnerable.

Protection of fishermen from abuses could be secured through the ratification by the Royal Government of the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188), which establishes minimum labour standards to improve safety, health and medical care for workers on board of fishing vessels. It would also ensure fishermen have the protection of a written work agreement and the same social security protections as national workers. Thailand has already taken several important steps towards its ratification, holding an initial tripartite meeting and numerous public hearings. However, the ratification could be derailed by the National Fishing Association of Thailand (NFAT), which also demands to introduce exemptions for child labour, allowing 16-year-olds to work on fishing vessels. This is in contrast with ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which has been already ratified by Thailand.

30 Civil Society Organizations signed a ‘Joint Civil Society Statement concerning Ratification of the Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188)’, calling The Royal Government of Thailand to continue its efforts towards ratification of the convention to ensure protection of workers from being exploited and to offer protection mechanisms against debt bondage and forced labour.

We also monitor the development of the situation. In the framework of the EU funded MIG-RIGHT and MIGRA ACTION projects we support meetings in vulnerable communities to give an opportunity for returned migrants to share their story with the group and to promote safe migration practices. Many former fishermen join our meetings and provide us with first-sight testimonies of what they experienced on board of the fishing vessels. We also encourage migrant workers to file complaints with the authorities and offer legal advice free of charge, as well as follow up on cases. Finally, we promote advocacy initiatives to protect the rights of migrants in the fishing industries (see advocacy).

Read Touch’s Testimony , former fisherman who escaped death