NGOs, industry weigh in on Thai fishing forced labor ranking

By

Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
July 28, 2015

After the U.S. Secretary of State released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons report yesterday, giving Thailand more bad marks for its lack of control of forced labor, NGOs and the industry all agreed that while the Thai government has shown an effort to address the problem, the report made the right call.

“Absolutely,” said Katrina Nakamura, chief technical officer at Resiliency Group, a sustainability advisory and consulting firm for the seafood industry, when asked if the department’s report got it right.

The report, an annual assessment of countries that have known problems with human trafficking, gave Thailand a Tier 3 designation, the worst grade possible, for the second year in a row. The report said trafficking is connected to a number of industries, but it particularly noted the fishing industry, where migrants from neighboring Myanmar are forced to work under inhumane conditions, often against their will. The descriptions reflect mass-media reports and Nakamura, who studies the issue in countries such as Thailand, said modern-day slavery is still very much a problem there.

“Thailand has made great strides this year, but it’s still built into the industry,” she told SeafoodSource.

Part of the problem, Nakamura said, is that the seafood supply chain is Thailand is dense and complex. The industry in Thailand relies largely on subcontractors and third-party companies, so it is easy for parts of the chain to remain hidden. Other regulatory loopholes, such as the lack of a requirement for refrigerated cargo vessels to register with the government, she said, don’t help.

“It’s going to take a while to clear that out, because it’s made so much money for a lot of hands,” she said.

NGOs reacted swiftly to the report’s release. Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which has produced a number of reports exposing the problem, said he agreed with the department’s keeping Thailand at Tier 3.

"Much more has to be done to drive complete reform of the seafood sector in Thailand to outlaw and eradicate the slavery and other labor abuses which currently underwrite its export driven profitability,” Trent said. “Until these actions are taken Thailand should remain on the lowest ranking alongside North Korea, Syria and other gross offenders against basic human rights."

Other NGOs agreed. A coalition of 25 labor rights groups led by the International Labor Rights Forum sent a letter to the department underscoring the issues mentioned in the report.

“The Thai government seems to be realizing it must address its significant labor trafficking problem or face economic consequences,” said Abby McGill, the forum’s campaigns director. “Unfortunately, the changes it has made so far are largely cosmetic. We hope this decision will underscore the urgent need to reform immigration and labor laws so they uphold the human rights of migrant workers, one of the populations in Thailand most vulnerable to human trafficking.”

In a statement, Sein Htay, president of the Migrant Workers Rights Network, agreed.

“While there have recently been positive moves forward, Thailand has still not yet demonstrated enough political will, translated into effective implementation of actions, to change the systemic nature of its human trafficking,” Htay said.

John Connelly, president of the (U.S.) National Fisheries Institute (NFI), said his organization, which represents many seafood industry leaders in the United States, remains committed to pressing the Thai government to act on the issue.

“When credible leads are presented by industry, journalists, witnesses and or alleged victims, NFI believes swift, targeted and thorough investigation followed by action is the blueprint for response governments should adopt,” Connelly said.

Nakamura said anyone in the industry who sources from Thailand needs to ask suppliers as many questions as possible, and insist on detailed answers, not just an assurance that there is no slave labor involved.

“(We) need to follow up that question with ‘Prove it,’ or ‘How do you know?’” she said.

Nakamura acknowledged that it is difficult for the industry to police itself, but until government oversight improves, that’s a big part of what it will take to prevent abuses that go way beyond typical environmental protection concerns.

“This isn’t an issue like fish stocks, the status of fish stocks,” she said. “This is a human issue.”

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