Seafood Working Group urges downgrade of Thailand, Taiwan in forthcoming US Trafficking in Persons Report

Fishing vessels in Southeast Asia.

The Seafood Working Group is calling for the downgrade of Thailand and Taiwan in the forthcoming 2023 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

The Seafood Working group is composed of 28 organizations including the International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), Greenpeace USA, and the Environmental Justice Foundation that was formed to advocate for effective government policies and industry actions to end labor exploitation, illegal fishing, and overfishing in the global seafood industry.

The group formally submitted its report to the U.S. State Department on Monday 5 June, saying ongoing issues of labor rights violations, forced labor, and human trafficking of migrant workers in Thailand and Taiwan impels the U.S. government to punish both countries with a lower ranking in the TIP report.

Typically published in July, the TIP grades countries on the state of human trafficking and forced labor and their efforts to combat those issues. In the 2022 report, Taiwan maintained its Tier 1 status – the report’s highest ranking – for the second consecutive year, while Thailand was upgraded to from the Tier 2 Watchlist to Tier 2.

“To maintain a Tier 1 ranking, governments need to demonstrate appreciable progress each year in combating trafficking. During the reporting period, the Taiwanese government made efforts to improve the working conditions in its distant water fishing industry. However, these have not been appreciable,” the Seafood Working Group said in a press release. “The findings of this submission show that Taiwan has not made progress on the majority of the TIP Office’s prioritized recommendations from their 2022 report.”

Taiwan’s government has mandated CCTV video monitoring on its distant-water vessels, increased crew salaries, and required life jackets onboard all vessels, among other improvements, the Seafood Working Group said. But it renewed a call for mandatory Wi-Fi onboard all distant-water vessels.

“The 21st Century Initiative on trade between Taiwan and the U.S. is quickly being developed. To facilitate a successful trade initiative between the U.S. and Taiwan and to prevent any products sourced from Taiwan involving labor exploitation, the Taiwanese government should continue to improve its regulatory practices in advancing the rights of distant-water fishers. This means ending the two-tiered employment system, properly regulating the recruitment agencies to implement the ILO’s fair-recruitment principles, and ensuring internet access and fishers’ freedom of association rights on the high seas,” Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, the director of politics on migrant workers for the Serve the People Association – a member of the Seafood Working Group – said. 

Greenpeace USA Chief Program Officer Tefere Gebre noted the U.S. Department of Labor has listed seafood from Taiwan on its list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor in its own 2020 and 2022 reports, and said his organization has found evidence of serious issues of human trafficking and forced labor in the Taiwanese distant water fishing industry.

“While lives are at stake, governments and businesses have not addressed these issues with the urgency and resources they require,” Gebre said. “The revelations in our submission detail issues happening right now and should deepen concerns about the high-risk nature of the seafood supply chain. We call on the U.S. government to increase its monitoring of seafood imports and strengthen efforts to prevent these harms from occurring in the first place. Companies that source these products must prioritize the safety and wellbeing of workers in their supply chains and ensure their customers receive products free from forced labor and modern slavery.”

In Thailand, the country’s government committed in August 2022 to granting migrant workers the legal right to establish labor unions as part of its anti-trafficking efforts, and adopted anti-trafficking measures intended to strengthen the identification of survivors of forced labor. But it has not fulfilled its obligations to make those policies effective, according to the Seafood Working Group.

“The government of Thailand has not provided evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons compared to the previous year, including not adequately adopting the majority of the TIP Office’s prioritized recommendations outlined in the 2022 TIP Report,” the group said.

Recent elections in Thailand have given the Seafood Working Group hope that change is coming to Thailand’s seafood industry, according to The Freedom Fund Senior Program Advisor Roisai Wongsuban. But forced labor, including cases in which workers are unable to resign due to document retention, withholding of wages, physical violence, debt bondage, or death threats, is still a reality in Thailand, Wongsuban said.

Last year, the Seafood Working Group made a similar demand for the U.S. State Department to downgrade Taiwan and Thailand in its 2022 report. GLJ-ILRF Executive Director Jennifer Rosenbaum said the group will continue to demand action until labor exploitation issues are fully addressed by both countries.

“Continuous barriers to migrant workers’ ability to exercise their fundamental labor rights, including discriminatory legal frameworks, short-term guest-worker policies, and misconduct by authorities, must be addressed to end exploitation,” Rosenbaum said. “We intend that the submissions to the State Department bring workers’ experiences into policy-making spaces in the U.S. and in Thailand and Taiwan. Our experience shows that ensuring workers’ fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining prevents situations of exploitation that lead to forced labor from occurring in the first place.”

Photo courtesy of Richard Whitcombe/Shutterstock


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