Thailand’s Fishing Industry: Caught in the Net of Human Trafficking

In March 2018, the deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Chatchai Sarikulya, sent special teams to survey and arrest offenders, who were committing human trafficking crimes in the fishing sector. Thai and non-Thai vessels were investigated for violating the fishing labour laws, and 50 cases were prosecuted.  After this unusual event, the Thai police announced they were determined to continue surveying sea vessels to stop the illegal labour practices occurring in the fishing industry. 

Thai fishing boat (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The fight for freedom and peace in Thailand has rattled the country for hundreds of years. According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, 610,00 people in Thailand are estimated to live in slavery. About 2 to 3 million immigrants live in Thailand and thousands of them have been put into the human trafficking industry. For years, these people were forced into different types of illegal work, primarily manual labour. Fishermen in Thailand, who were trafficked onto ships, often got trapped in jobs they could not leave, dealing with “physical abuse, lack of food, long hours and awful working conditions”.

The Thai fishery, a prime sector for slave labour, grew into a 6.5 billion dollar industry, and a key fish exporter to countries including the UK, Japan, and the United States. Unlike the well-known sex trade in Thailand, which involves the abuse especially of women from various countries in Southern Asia, the fishing industry primarily exploits vulnerable male immigrants. A study of 248 boat owners and fishing companies by Human Rights Watch, conducted between 2015 and 2017, showed that individuals from Burma and Cambodia were forced to work in unsafe, filthy conditions in Thai waters. These people were chronically underpaid, or not paid at all. Thailand has received warnings from the European Union, threatening a ban on seafood imports due to “illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices.” Not only has the industry received a strong backlash from the EU, but the US and other countries are watching Thailand closely, to make sure that they uphold the expectations placed upon every major seafood exporter. In its recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports, the US State Department placed Thailand on the Tier 2 watch list. As a result of these warning signs, Thai industry officials have been told they could lose their fishing licenses. The Thai government is trying to solve these issues, but according to analysts, wide-spread corruption is the main barrier that inhibits efforts to end the problem. Owners of fisheries are reaping huge profits by underpaying and exploiting immigrants and workers. 

As of 2020, there have been some improvements in the working conditions of fishermen. Research conducted by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) shows that fewer workers are recruited through agents or brokers, leading to a reduction of fees for those seeking employment. Wages have also improved slightly, as fewer fishermen and workers are paid based on a “share of the catch” system. According to the ILO, 85 percent fishermen and 26 percent of workers in processing factories are “being paid or promised a flat, monthly pay rate.” But labour abuse continues to persist in the industry, particularly because of a lack of unions. Immigrant workers are prohibited from forming unions which is a violation of their rights. Thailand still remains on the US State Department’s Tier 2 list, and although Thailand’s Prime Minister claims that changes are being made and compensation for victims of human trafficking have increased, the government is not doing everything that they can to eradicate the problem. A unified approach is needed to fix this issue.

The more this conversation is brought up in schools and homes, the more we can start doing something to change the horrendous labour conditions. Doing something, in this case, may be as simple as not buying seafood from Thailand to put pressure on the fishing industry. Buyers and consumers around the world need to educate themselves in order to be aware of what kind of industry they are supporting, and to avoid unknowingly reinforcing inhumane practices.

Halle de Valk-Zaiss is a third year student specializing in International Development with a focus on gender and development. She is interested in gender and politics, human rights, and development on both a national and international scale.