Thai fishing sector abuse continues despite reforms

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Report testimonies from Cambodian fishermen tell of pay being witheld. Reuters

Cambodian migrant fishermen in Thailand are still subject to forced labour despite efforts to clean up the industry, advocacy groups said yesterday.

Thailand’s multibillion-dollar seafood sector came under scrutiny in recent years after investigations showed widespread slavery, trafficking and violence on fishing boats and in onshore processing facilities.

The Thai government has rolled out reforms since the European Union in 2015 threatened to ban fish imports from Thailand unless it clean up the industry.

But the advocacy group Human Rights Watch says little has changed.

Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said the measures should have given consumers in Europe, the United States and Japan the confidence that Thailand’s seafood does not involve forced labour.

“Yet despite high-profile commitments by the Thai government to clean up the fishing industry, problems are rampant,” he added in a statement.

In a report released yesterday, HRW included testimonies from 248 current and former fishermen who described their horrific working conditions.

The workers, almost all from Cambodia and Myanmar, were interviewed between 2015 and 2017.

“You can’t leave because if you leave you won’t get paid, and if you want to leave at the end it’s only if they let you,” Cambodian fisherman Bien Vorn told the rights group.

Sinuon Sao, another Cambodian migrant who worked on a Thai fishing vessel, said he was also unable to leave the job when he wanted to.

“Our money is with [the owner], so he can decide to give us permission [to change jobs] or not. They hold all the power and we can’t do anything,” he said.

The world’s third largest seafood exporter, Thailand’s fishing industry employs more than 300,000 people, many of them migrant workers from neighbouring countries. The sector has long been dogged by allegations of abuses.

The Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation, a Thai advocacy group that supports migrant fishermen, said reforms introduced by the government often are not enforced by local officials.

“The situation of forced labour is still serious. Very often the fishermen have no salary or cannot change their job,” its founder, Patima Tungpuchayakul, said.

More than a third of migrant fishermen in Thailand were victims of trafficking, according to a study of 260 fishermen by anti-trafficking group the International Justice Mission last year.

The study found three-quarters of migrants working on Thai fishing vessels have been in debt bondage and work at least 16 hours a day.

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