Forced labor, human trafficking and other rights abuses are "widespread" in the Thai fishing industry, according to a new Human Rights Watch report that provides an update on a sector that has been cited for enabling slavery conditions.
In recent years, reports have emerged that detail forced labor and confinement on ships that make up Thailand's large fishing fleet, where migrants from Thailand's neighbors, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, are often victimized. Past reports have found prison-like conditions; the new report details how workers are often paid below the minimum wage, are not paid on time, and are held in debt.
Despite scrutiny from U.S. and European monitors and the Thai government's public promises to clamp down, the abuses remain a big part of Thailand's fishing industry, according to the report.
From Bangkok, Michael Sullivan reports for NPR's Newscast unit:
"Under Thai law, migrant laborers are not entitled to Thai labor law protection. ...
"The European Union has warned Thailand it could face a seafood export ban and the U.S. has placed Thailand on the Tier 2 Watch List in its latest trafficking in persons report."
The 134-page report from Human Rights Watch is titled "Hidden Chains: Forced Labor and Rights Abuses in Thailand's Fishing Industry. Compiled from interviews with 248 current and former fishers, it includes several quotes from workers.
"I didn't know what was going on when I arrived," trafficked Burmese worker Bang Rin said in March of 2016. "They just put me in a lockup, and it was only when the boat came in that I realized that was where I'd have to work. I went to do my pink card application on the 4th, and on the 5th I was out on the boat."
The HRW says the research was conducted from 2015 to 2017, when its staff members visited all of Thailand's major fishing ports.
While acknowledging improvements from new Thai laws that govern practices such as putting migrant workers's names on crew lists and limiting time at sea to 30 days, the report also faulted the government's inspection process for relying too much on the word of ship owners and captains — and not talking to migrant workers.
As an example, HRW cites the Thai government's 2015 report on human trafficking, which said that after inspecting 474,334 fishery workers, no cases of forced labor were found. But in that same year, The Associated Press revealed the results of an extensive investigation in which its reporters found workers, many of them from Myanmar, being held in cages on a remote Indonesian island that served as the base for a trawler fleet.
When the AP reporters traced one catch, they followed it back to Thailand. And at least some of that seafood wound up in the United States, either in cat food or in grocery store freezers.
Last year, Thailand introduced new restrictions on its labor force that included the threat of fines and years in prison for any workers found without the proper documents to be in the country. That prompted an exodus of tens of thousands of migrant workers, many of whom returned home to Myanmar and Cambodia.