Thai prison labor plan draws fire from trafficking critics

A pilot project by the Thai government to recruit prisoners to work in the fishing industry has drawn backlash from 45 different human rights organizations, who argue problems with human trafficking need to be addressed first.

The groups signed a letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asking him to end the program. Government officials have argued that the program is necessary due to an ongoing labor shortage in the fishing industry. The groups counterargue that abusive behavior by the fishing boat operators has created the labor shortage in the first place by driving away voluntary workers.

Now, the groups wrote, the industry employs and abuses immigrants, and will simply abuse prisoner labor as well if the pilot program continues.

“Thailand cannot run from the trafficking problem in its fishing fleet,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “And sending prisoners to sea will not address the systematic, pervasive labor problems in Thailand’s fishing industry. It is time for the Thai government to recognize that its treatment of migrant workers lies at the heart of the problem and take real, meaningful steps to ensure all workers within its borders work in dignified, just conditions.”

Several public incidents in 2014, including a high-profile article in the British newspaper The Guardian and the U.S. State Department downgrading Thailand in its Trafficking in Persons report have made foreign seafood buyers wary. The groups wrote that the prisoner program will only upset buyers even more.

“The retailers we have worked with in Australia are very responsive to the threat of forced labor in their supply chains,” said Mark Zirnsak, director of the Justice & International Mission at the Uniting Church in Australia Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. “We are working with them, and with Thai suppliers, to increase transparency and ensure just working conditions on Thai fishing vessels. We are deeply concerned that the prison labor program could make it more difficult for the industry partners we work with to verify workers in their supply chains are working without threat of coercion.”


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