Slavery at Sea: Thailand’s Unclean Fishing Sector

By Sophie Evans

Thailand’s £6 billion fishing industry continues to exploit its migrant workforce – and the world remains implicit.

Thailand – a nation famed for its golden beaches that draw in millions of tourists each year, with the country’s 3,200 kilometres of coastline making it a prime holiday location. Simultaneously, its geography makes Thailand one of the biggest fish producing nations in the world – as well as the third largest seafood exporter and the leading exporter of shrimp. With Thailand’s fishing industry generating an estimated export revenue of £6 billion, and with the EU alone importing £548 million worth of seafood each year, the industry is not only highly profitable but one that the whole world relies on.

Lucrative as it is, this sector hides a darker narrative. The exploitive nature of Thailand’s fishing industry first garnered global attention in 2014, when the Guardian broke the story that the top retailers in the world – Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco – were importing shrimp commissioned from Thai fishing boats whose employees were human trafficking victims. This propelled the emergence of reports which revealed that labourers were being lured onto fishing boats with promises of well-paid work only to be kept aboard without contracts and forced to work 18–20-hour days with little food or water as well as being physically and verbally abused by captains. Grim tales of workers being subjected to electric shock treatment, left sleep deprived and drugged to remain passive have also surfaced in recent years. This led the U.S. Department of State to downgrade Thailand to Tier 3 in its 2014 annual Trafficking in Persons report (TIP) – the lowest status possible, indicating that “[Thailand’s] government does not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.” The EU subsequently issued a “yellow card” warning to the nation in April 2015 labelling it a potential non-cooperating country in combating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Since then, the Thai government had been taking considerable measures to be moved up the TIP rankings, as Deputy Prime Minister Trawit Wongsuwon has implemented policies to clamp down on the mismanagement of fishing vessels – such as the introduction of new interagency inspection frameworks to monitor incoming and outgoing fishing boats as well as increasing penalties for infringing on fishers’ rights. These attempts led the US to upgrade Thailand to Tier 2 on its TIP report in 2018 – as being a country “whose governments […]  are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with [TVIP] standards.” 

However, though these reforms momentarily satisfied international regulations, they focused on controlling fishing operations and dealing with IUU fishing and did little to stop the human rights abuses at work on fishing vessels. Reforms in this respect have been less than ideal. One such attempt included regulating employment and wages by using online banking systems rather than physical pay slips, a policy that proved unsuccessful as captains kept control of employees’ bank accounts as a further means to control them. The crux of the problem seems to lie in the lack of implementation of regulatory penalties – as in 2015 the Thai government stated that out of 474,334 inspections of fishery workers, not a single case of forced labour had been identified. It is clear from this that the internal corruption within the Thai police force continues to pose as an impediment to efforts to combat anti-trafficking. 

As a result of this, on the 30th of June, the U.S. Department of State degraded Thailand to its Tier 2 Watchlist in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, signifying that despite some effort, Thailand’s government is not fully meeting the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards. In particular, Thailand has seen a significant/significantly increasing number of human trafficking victims and there has been a “failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year.” This begs the troubling question that perhaps the lack of real traction by the government in fixing these issues could be due to the unquestionable vitality of this industry to Thailand’s GDP – and without this vast pool of cheap labour it could be at risk of collapse.

Indeed, the prevalence of forced labour seems to stem from an unquestionable economic incentive. Despite being a fast-growing industry with more advanced fishing technology, rampant overfishing meant that in 2015, Thai vessels were capable of catching a mere 14% of the amount fished in the 1960s. In a bid to meet quotas, struggling fishing companies turned to malpractices to keep profits – particularly in the form of employing cheap labour. Thailand’s fishing fleet, freshwater aquaculture and seafood processing sheds employ 650,000 workers, 71,000 of which are thought to be migrant workers. The majority of these migrants are Burmese, Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotian and are often undocumented – there is a staggering 2 million undocumented labourers in the country – and these individuals are particularly vulnerable to abusive situations due to their illegal status and inability to speak out about abuses in fear of being deported. Certainly, the Prime Minister introduced stricter regulations regarding undocumented migrants which proved to further silence the atrocities that these workers have been subjected to as arrested workers were deported without screening, despite the fact that they may have been under forced labour conditions at the time. 

Though the Thai government has lengths to go in rectifying this pressing issue, this shocking display of modern-day slavery is not a problem that the West is innocent from. In Australia, a 2019 study found that just one brand of tinned tuna on supermarket shelves could claim slavery was not involved in its supply chain. Similarly, the world’s largest shrimp farmer Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, uses “trash fish” caught by enslaved labourers as protein feed for shrimp farms, the produce of which is then exported abroad to international supermarkets. Though once thought of as one, seafood such as tropical shrimp is no longer considered the luxury it once was in the West. The reason why is undoubtedly because shrimp are now fished on industrial levels – transformed into commodities of mass consumption through the backbreaking efforts of labourers on fishing boats working for next to nothing. 

Western nations are well aware of the benefits of this industry and participating in it – clear from the EU’s controversial lifting of its “yellow card” rating from Thailand in 2019 (a measure which could have led to an import ban) in response to Thai authorities putting in place regulatory measures to mitigate human trafficking. This move was heavily criticised by campaigners who stated it gave the “illusion that violations of fishers’ rights were not still occurring”. Indeed, a 2018 Amnesty International report found that port inspections made to check human trafficking were “largely a theatrical exercise for international consumption”. Therefore, Western governments too have allowed their own trade needs to cause them to turn a blind eye on these atrocities as ones that remain hidden deep within a long transglobal supply chain. However, as the adage goes, just because one cannot see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there – and there is no doubt that Western countries have a responsibility to recognise their role in buying into slave labour – and mitigate this. 

And so, the question remains – what is the solution? In simple terms, what needs to be done is a push for real transparency and traceability in supply chains, and effort from retailers in enforcing stricter supplier standards which prohibit forced labour. Yet, this is easier said than done – regulating the actions of vessels roaming open waters alongside the added complication of seeking justice for workers that are already undocumented will require incredible effort – starting with a reformation of fundamental legislation and the collaboration between government and nongovernmental organisations in order to educate fishers on their rights in order to mitigate abuses. A tighter crackdown on the internal corruption that continues to disrupt any potential for change will also be critical. For now, these reforms remain in progress, but the tales of nightmares at sea should remind the rest of the world that slavery is by no means a relic of trade in centuries past – but rather remains a fundamental part of global supply chains today. As such, our role as consumers in this exploitative industry continues to maintain our implicit place in these abuses – no matter how far away they may seem.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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