Common Human Rights Issues: Forced Labor and Human Trafficking
Thailand is a major contributor to the global seafood economy. According to the FAO, it ranks sixth in global seafood exports, following China, Norway, Vietnam, India, and Chile. In 2017, Thailand’s fishery sector, combined with its seafood processing sector, employed over 600,000 workers, over half of which were migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar. The ILO cites shortages of Thai workers willing to fish and increasing economic disparity between Thailand and its neighboring countries as reasons for the predominance of migrant fishers. Migrant workers typically have to pay higher recruitment fees and are generally more vulnerable to exploitation than Thai nationals. Additionally, the Thailand government’s migration policy and inefficient anti-trafficking laws provide very little protection for fishers and processors.
In an effort to reduce the number of undocumented migrant fishers in the industry, Thailand introduced a “pink card” system that ties fishers’ legal status to specific employers. Unintentionally, this system creates conditions that encourage abuse of migrant workers. Fishers are not allowed to change jobs without the permission of their employers, who, in turn, demand that the fishers pay off their “debts” before allowing them to leave. The “pink card” system has had the unforeseen consequence of allowing employers to coerce fishers into continued labor under the guise of compliance. Additionally, under the Thai Labor Relations Act of 1975, migrant workers are disallowed from forming or leading unions and therefore face significant limits on their rights to collective action and bargaining.
Although the Thai government has implemented anti-trafficking laws, Thai authorities are challenged by limited capacity, corruption within law-enforcement, lack of criminal proceedings, and insufficient effort. Until the 2008 enactment of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, B.E 2551, fishers who had been trafficked into labor on fishing boats weren’t officially recognized as victims. This failure to identify victims, provide them with protections, and prevent further abuse persists within Thailand’s fishing industry.
The Seafood Working Group (SWG), a coalition of 23 environmental and human rights organizations, has detailed labor rights violations, forced labor, and human trafficking in the seafood industry in Thailand. The U.S. Department of State: Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) ranks Thailand between Tier 3 and Tier 2. In 2021, it was ranked Tier 2 Watch List. Thailand has not met the minimum standards in combatting human trafficking, nor has it effectively enacted responsible recruitment practices for migrant workers.
Moreover, in December 2021, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation uncovered that some major Thai suppliers of fishing nets, including at least one that exported to the United States, were sourcing from prison programs that used forced labor. In response, a coalition of human rights groups called for a halt to imports of nets from Khon Kaen Fishing Net (KKF) and Dechapanich Fishing Net.
In April 2021, the Thai Government introduced the “Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations,” a piece of legislation that, if passed, would seriously jeopardize the work of civil society and non-profit organizations, including those dedicated to promoting human and labor rights in Thailand. According to Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director, “in its current form the excessively restrictive law could easily be misused to obstruct the work of or even shut down a wide range of grassroots, national and international civil society groups in Thailand, threatening its status as a regional hub for local and international NGOs.” The risk to a healthy environment for civil society organizations, supportive of the ability to transparently report on working conditions, would directly undermine companies’ ability to assess risk, engage workers, and verify conditions. This would make Thailand an even riskier geography for seafood production by thwarting effective human rights due diligence throughout supply chains.