SWSS: Thai authorities outline steps needed to stamp out human rights abuses

Published on
February 2, 2016

Senior Thai officials outlined the steps being taken to combat forced labor and human rights abuses in their country’s seafood industry at a presentation at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit on 2 February 2016.

Representatives from a British importer of Thai seafood and a non-governmental organization responded by backing the government’s efforts and encouraging their peers to stay engaged in Thailand and helping to advance efforts to improve labor standards in the Thai fishing industry.

The seafood industry in Thailand, the third largest in the world with exports valued at USD 7.3 billion in 2011 (the most recent year from which data is available), has been the subject of attention after a series of exposés revealed human and labor rights abuses onboard fishing vessels and in processing centers. According to a United Nations Inter-Agency Panel on Human Trafficking report on workers in the Thai fishing industry, 94 percent worked without a contract, 17 percent worked against their will, 10 percent had been beaten while working and 59 percent had witnessed an execution at sea.

Thailand Minister of Labor General Sirichai Distakul, who also serves as Secretary of the Committee on Policy Implementation to Combat Foreign Workers and Human Trafficking Problems, said his country had recently adopted a new fishery management plan and new legislation that directly addressed the problems identified in recent public reports.

“What I’d like to make clear is that my team and I are not here to deny the existence of deep-seated problems in the Thai fishing and seafood industries,” Distakul said. “Rather, we are here to reaffirm our commitment to rooting out these problems and to fulfill Thailand’s international obligations.”

Distakul said he was in attendance at the forum to seek “constructive ideas for the fight ahead against IUU fishing and human trafficking.”

“Our focus is the same as yours,” he told a roomful of industry and NGO leaders. “To find viable solutions that will transform the Thai fishing and seafood industry to environmental and social responsibility.”

Wimol Jantrarotai, the Director General of the Thailand Department of Fisheries, which has more than 5,000 employees, said his country’s new regulations stipulate that “all catching of fish must now be based on a sustainable approach” and said he had acted to temporarily freeze all new fishing license authorizations.

Jantrarotai said a major problem plaguing the Thai fishing industry was overcapacity – the Thai fleet is composed of more than 42,000 vessels, resulting in overfishing and decline of local stocks. Adding to the complication, only 22 percent of the fleet is composed of large-scale commercial fishing vessels, making enforcement difficult. He said his department had initiated a buy-back program for antiquated fishing vessels and had begun working with the Ministry of Social Welfare and Security to help displaced workers find new employment, job training, as well as shelter, welfare and loans to assist in their transition.

“Those who want to [remain] in [the] fishery sector can do it more responsibly,” Jantrarotai said.

Kristian Teleki, the director of engagement for the Global Ocean Commission and event moderator, praised recent the turnaround efforts of the Thai government.

“Very good progress certainly being made by Thailand on this issue,” he said.

Ally Dingwall, aquaculture and fisheries manager at Sainsbury’s Supermarkets, which is the second largest retailer of shrimp in the United Kingdom, urged seafood businesses to continue to stay involved in Thailand.

“Anyone trading with Thailand has an obligation to continue to provide for the workers in that area. Anybody who isn’t engaged should be,” he said.

“This isn’t about businesses; it’s about people on the ground. We have to work and push for change and improvement.”
Steve Trent, founding director of the Environmental Justice Foundation and WildAid, agreed with Dingwall that seafood companies should not pull their business out of Thailand.

“Don’t stop buying from Thailand. Work together with the Thai government to get to the goal of achieving legal, ethical products,” he said. “I just give my strongest encouragement to work toward that goal. Walking away will likely achieve nothing.”

At the conclusion of the panel, Jantrarotai reiterated the Thai government’s commitment to working with industry and non-govermental organizations to improve its seafood industry.

“[We are here at this very important meeting to show to the international community we are very seriously willing to work very closely with our partners,” he said. “We have a very difficult transition we have to have with our fishermen. When they learn how to be in compliance with the new law, that will set down the foundation to carry out the law. The most difficult term of implementation is in the next 6 months to 1 year. If we can pass this critical period, I think everything will be in the system and we will have an ethical fishery that will be held up by this solid foundation.”

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