Notes from the Field

Human Trafficking Rampant in Thailand’s Deep-Sea Fishing Industry

February 8, 2012

While a lucrative deep-sea fishing industry places Thailand among the world’s leading exporters of sea products, a grim specter of human rights abuse lurks below the surface of an industry whose contribution to the national economy is estimated to exceed $4 billion a year.

Thailand Fishing Boat

It’s estimated that Thailand’s deep-sea fishing industry contributes $4 billion a year to the national economy. But, the industry also creates opportunities for unscrupulous employment and a high risk of human trafficking. Photo by flickr user soma-samui.

A combination of factors – including a shortage of labor in this dangerous and physically demanding industry and pressures on marginalized populations – create opportunities for unscrupulous employment brokers and traffickers to prey on those desperate for work. Trafficking of migrant men and boys from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and within Thailand itself into the deep-sea fishing industry (DSFI) is an issue of growing concern to the governments of Thailand and neighboring countries, civil society organizations (CSOs), and the international community. A combination of economic pressures, language constraints, and lack of information on the risk of trafficking puts migrant populations at especially high risk of labor exploitation and trafficking. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 250,000 migrants from Burma alone work in sea and land-based sectors of Thai fishing industry. Many of them are trafficked or subject to labor exploitation, while many more are at risk.

The 2011 U.S. Department of State’s global Trafficking in Persons Report placed Thailand on the Tier 2 Watch List for a second year in a row, underscoring the persistent challenges posed by various forms of human trafficking in Thailand. Concerns about trafficking in the DSFI feature prominently in the State Department report’s Thailand country analysis, which notes that “investigations of alleged human trafficking on Thai fishing boats, as well as inspections of these boats, were practically nonexistent.” The report urges the Thai government to take further action to bring traffickers to justice.

Growing evidence drawn from the testimonies of escaped fishermen affirms that DSFI trafficking victims routinely spend a year or more at sea on fishing vessels that operate in the far reaches of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, beyond the territorial jurisdiction of Thailand. Boats rarely return to port to offload their catch, leaving little scope for regulatory oversight or inspection by Thai authorities. While working conditions vary from vessel to vessel, research conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Mirror Foundation, and other organizations suggests that a significant percentage of the men and boys trafficked to Thai ships are subject to round-the-clock working hours, cramped quarters, poor nutrition, low wages, debt bondage, physical abuse and intimidation, and other hardships that amount to virtual enslavement. Some trafficking victims reportedly meet violent deaths if they become too ill to work or demand to be released. For example, a 2009 United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking study reported that half the members of a group of Cambodian DSFI trafficking victims surveyed had personally witnessed the execution of fellow crew members. Problems persist for many of those who manage to escape by jumping overboard. Many of those who manage to avoid being captured and returned to their ships are detained by foreign governments or face other repatriation challenges.

Thailand’s government is increasingly conscious of the severity of the problem and has taken preliminary measures to address trafficking in the DSFI, including the development of prevention and prosecution strategies by the police, public prosecutors, and other stakeholders. CSOs have in turn begun to compile statistics, monitor cases, educate vulnerable populations, and counsel victims on reporting options and legal remedies. Despite these welcome initiatives, the severity of the problem persists. Efforts by Thai administrative and law enforcement agencies to combat trafficking are thwarted by a lack of supporting data on the scale of the DSFI. Sound research is constrained by a variety of factors, including the fact that fishing vessels and crews rarely dock in Thai ports. While Thai CSOs have suggested that reported trafficking cases increased by 300 percent between 2008 and 2009, the shortage of data defies greater precision in gauging the scale of the problem. Capacity constraints among government agencies, including limited information sharing and cooperation among public agencies and CSOs, thwart effective monitoring and enforcement of applicable laws and regulations. These constraints exacerbate the gaps and overlaps in the legal and regulatory framework that governs the DSFI. As a result, laws intended to regulate the registration, licensing, inspection, and labor practices of fishing vessels and crews in the DSFI are easily circumvented. In addition, DSFI trafficking victims lack incentive to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers, in large part due to the negative repercussions of being identified as a trafficking victim.

In the past year, the number of domestic and international print and broadcast media reports on the plight of trafficking victims in the DSFI seems to be on the increase. Despite hard data constraints, the sheer volume of anecdotal evidence is bound to attract increasing international attention in Europe, the United States, and other countries and regions that import Thai sea products. International concern will add to the pressure on the Thai government to take further measures to combat DSFI trafficking and demonstrate its leadership role in tackling an issue that reaches beyond national borders. With the Thai economy reeling from the 2011 floods and growing trade and export competition from neighboring countries, there is no better time for Thailand to take determined action in partnership with civil society and the international community.

Despite this ripe environment for change, the fishing industry itself and the private sector more broadly have seemed loathe to acknowledge or address the reality of DSFI trafficking. Pressed to comment, some industry spokespersons have abjectly denied that the DSFI is vulnerable to trafficking and human rights violations. Rather than holding fast to this view in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, DSFI companies, sea product processing and export enterprises, restaurant and hotel associations, and other domestic private sector actors have an opportunity to take a principled collective stand, consistent with the mounting pressure on Thai companies to observe corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles and practices.

For the many DSFI enterprises that strictly conform with human rights obligations and extend high standards of care and support for their fishing crews, the stakes are high. The potential for the reckless practices of rogue members to color the reputation of an entire industry makes it doubly critical for responsible enterprises to set a high standard and call on all members of the industry to comply. To this end, there is significant potential for the private sector to work in cooperation with government, civil society, and the domestic and international media to address the problems that allow trafficking in the DSFI to persist. Through cooperation of this kind, the private sector can contribute to the clarification of ambiguities in the existing legal and regulatory framework and the revision of laws and regulations to effect stricter monitoring and enforcement. To deter offenders, cooperative efforts should call on the police and public prosecutors to press charges, secure conviction of traffickers, and apply zero tolerance standards in bringing security personnel and other public officials who are complicit in DSFI trafficking to justice.

The Asia Foundation is currently working with its local partners in Thailand to explore opportunities to bring the fishing industry, the private sector, government, and civil society together to address this longstanding issue. The cooperation of all stakeholders is essential to ensure that the thousands of hardworking fishermen from Thailand and neighboring countries, whose labor supplies a bounty of seafood to the world, go to sea in a safe and secure working environment that respects their fundamental rights and dignity.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand and Kate Bollinger is a program officer for the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. They can be reached at kmcquay@asiafound.org and kbollinger@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

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