Ship to Shore Rights project helping to improve Thai working conditions
Thailand has long been the subject of scrutiny and controversy due to poor working conditions and practices sometimes found in its fishing and wider seafood industry, but matters are slowly improving.
Three years ago, the government was spurred into action to start making changes after being handed a yellow card by the European Union. Since then, Thailand has made improvements to its labor laws, increased the accountability of employers, and upped enforcement.
In March, the Thai cabinet approved draft amendments to an ordinance that will represent a significant overhaul of the country’s labor laws. If approved, the ordinance will take aim at eliminating worker punishment and improving the plight of migrant workers, who make up a large portion of the employment pool in the Thai seafood industry. The ordinance will facilitate better control and monitoring of the process for bringing foreign workers into Thailand, including the need for contracts and a prohibition on the collection of unofficial fees. Employers who hire undocumented foreign workers will face heavy fines, with repeat offenders facing a prison sentence, according to the Thai government.
Another important advance for Thailand is the government’s cooperation with the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) in a three-year Ship to Shore Rights project, funded by the European Union.
The project aims to prevent and reduce forced and child labor, and to progressively eliminate the exploitation of workers – particularly migrant workers – in the fishing and seafood processing sectors. The intention is to oversee a strengthening of legal, policy, and regulatory framework, the implementation of more effective labor inspection and enforcement, an improvement in core labor standards compliance, and a strengthening of workers’ access to support services.
In 2017, to kick off the Ship to Shore Rights project, the ILO undertook a survey of 434 workers from across Thailand, with the goal of learning more about the country’s fishing, aquaculture, and seafood processing sectors. Participants, the majority of whom were migrants, were asked about recruitment practices, wages, hours, safety and health, support services, complaint mechanisms, living conditions, forced labor indicators, and legal compliance levels.
Their evidence is included in a report, “Baseline research findings on fishers and seafood workers in Thailand,” which also sets out the limited progress made to date, outlines major challenges remaining in the industry, and makes recommendations for more effective enforcement of Thai law to prevent and end unfair labor practices for migrant workers. The data will be used as a benchmark and compared with information collected at the end of the project in 2019, according to the project’s website.
The research indicated that the overall labor situation in Thailand has improved, compared to results from a smaller study undertaken four years ago. It found, for example, a marked reduction in reports of physical violence. It also found improvements in child labor totals, the presence of written contracts, and total wages, with one percent of those responding to the survey classified as child labor, 43 percent of fishers reporting written contracts, and wages being on average higher than previously reported.
The survey also found some discouraging trends, with 34 percent of workers reported earning less than the legal minimum wage before deductions (52 percent of workers in this category were women); 24 percent of fishers reporting pay withheld by vessel owners, some for 12 or more months; and 34 percent claiming not to have access to their identity documents.
In a statement responding to the report, the Thai government said that it is cooperating fully with the ILO to continuously address rights violations and improve working conditions in Thailand, that it backed the work of the Ship to Shore Rights project, and that it receives regular updates from Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour Jarin Jakkaphak, who chairs the steering committee.
“The baseline research on fishers and seafood workers is a collective effort from all partners to drive and measure progress to raise living and labor standards in the fishing and seafood sectors in line with international standards and achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 8 [Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all],” Jakkaphak said. “It will also contribute to achieving decent work, economic growth, and sustainable development whilst leaving no one behind.”
According to Luisa Ragher, chargé d’affaires ad interim of the E.U. delegation to Thailand, the Thai government is committed to making substantive changes to improve the labor situation in its seafood industry.
“The E.U. welcomes the substantive and rapid progress accomplished by the Royal Thai Government to create better working conditions in the fisheries and seafood sectors for migrant and Thai workers,” she said. “Further challenges remain, and the E.U. stands ready to assist the government in achieving its objectives.”
At a seminar held during the 2018 Seafood Expo North America in March in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Apinya Tajit, the deputy director of Stella Maris, a nonprofit seafarers’ welfare organization, confirmed that the labor rights situation has improved, following closer cooperation and collaboration by Thai government agencies with several NGOs. Tajit’s own organization has been working closely with the Thai government to increase protection of the migrant workers in the fisheries sector, she said.
Tajit explained that NGOs now have seats on Thailand’s Working Group on Labor Relations Promotion in Sea Fishing Operation, and have begun to work with the government as part of its inspection and law enforcement teams. She asked the audience to see for themselves what is happening in Thailand and to be cautious of news reports based on old data, collected prior to the government embarking on its program of labor reform.