Thai industry responds to labor criticism
Representatives of the Thai seafood industry and the Thai government met with reporters and the public today in a special seminar during Seafood Expo North America to respond to criticisms that the government has not done enough to fight forced labor and human trafficking in the fishing industry.
In a two-hour series of presentations on 17 March, the panelists described new policies, training programs and laws governing fisheries management, all designed to improve tracking of vessels and workers, ensure workers are paid adequately and on time, and that workers are not subjected to physical violence.
"We are making forced labor and child labor a government top priority," said Saroj Thanasunti, deputy chief of mission of the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, who opened the seminar.
The industry's image has suffered a series of blows, most notably from the nonprofit group Environmental Justice Foundation, which has published several reports since June 2013 alleging workers, particularly immigrants from neighboring Myanmar, are lured onto fishing boats where they are forced to work long hours for little or no pay. Often, according to the foundation's reports, workers are transferred from one fishing vessel to another at sea, so they do not have a chance to escape during a return to port, and some workers are beaten and cast overboard if they object to their treatment.
In 2013, the U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons report, which placed Thailand on its Tier 2 Watch list. This means Thailand has shown an effort to control trafficking, but there is still a substantial problem there. It was the fourth year in a row that Thailand was given this designation, which means this year the department must decide whether to upgrade Thailand to Tier 2 or higher, or downgrade it to Tier 3, which would open up the country to trade sanctions.
In his remarks, Thanasunti acknowledged that the government has not yet stopped the problem, but added that he felt the new measures being put in place have already accomplished a great deal.
"While we have much to do, I am content that we have charted the right course," he said.
The new laws, which the Thai government described as "Good Labor Practices," are the result of a process that started in 2011, according to Waraporn Prompoj (pictured), senior expert on international fisheries affairs for the Thai Department of Fisheries.
The government worked to coordinate its efforts with various industry associations and groups, she said. The laws finally began to take shape in 2012, and officially went on the books on 16 September 2013. Already there are 97 seafood processing plants complying with the news laws, she said.
"We've worked very hard in the past two to three years," she said.
For fishing boats, the new regulations include vessel monitoring systems to be installed on all Thai fishing boats that operate in foreign waters. Worker manifests must be strictly documented, including fingerprint identification for all workers. Prompoj said other government officials were responsible for overseeing the new rules, but ideally she said she would like to see the guidelines fully in place for fishing vessels by June, with full implementation by the end of the year.
Panisuan Jamnarnwej, president emeritus of the Thai Frozen Foods Association, insisted that putting practices into place to make workers feel safe and secure is good for business, because it makes workers more productive.
"We really, really like our workers to be happy," he said.
Brian Wynn, a member of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI)'s executive committee, said he supports the Thai government and its efforts to deal with the problem so far.
"We know you are working to address this issues, and appreciate the progress you have made," he said.
Wynn said he urged NFI member companies to engage in real risk assessment, real training of managers and use clauses in contracts specifically forbidding this practice.
"There is still much work to be done," he said.
Keep checking SeafoodSource for all the latest news on the Thailand human trafficking issue