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Is Thailand doing enough to stop slavery in its fishing industry?

by David Browne

Soe Min’s friend and fellow migrant Burmese fisherman made the fateful mistake of allowing a squid to be washed overboard.

“The Thai skipper came down and hit him with a pipe. He raised his hand against the first blow, and his hand broke. The second blow smashed his shoulder blade.

“Then he hit this place,” continued Soe Min, pointing to the back of his head.

“The skipper dropped the pipe, washed his hands and went back up to the wheelhouse. He ordered his people to throw him into the water. We saw he was still alive.

“When he went back to wheelhouse, the captain took the loudspeaker and yelled out: ‘What are you looking at, you bastards? Get back to work! If you want to end up like him, then behave like him!’”

The murder was just one of many that Soe Min and other undocumented migrant Burmese fishers recounted to me in 1998 when I was making a series of documentaries for the International Federation of Transport Workers (Abandoned, Not Forgotten) and Al Jazeera (Murder at Sea).

At the time Soe Min and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other runaway fishers were eking out a feral existence, surviving on roots and the kindness of strangers, in the interior forests of the remote Tual and Benjina islands, off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

Some of these men have since made it home to Myanmar. Yet to this day hundreds remain trapped in their very own version of hell in the Pacific.

But last month it would appear that the international campaign to put Thailand’s outlaw fishing industry in the dock – swelled by trade union power and a wave of other exposés by respected media outlets, such as the BBC, Associated Press and London’s Observer newspaper – has finally made a major breakthrough.

On 3 November 2015 the cabinet of Thailand’s military-installed government approved a raft of measures designed to regulate and clean-up the country’s fisheries industry. It is an enterprise with a US$8 billion yearly turnover but it is awash with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, not least the brutal exploitation of tens of thousands of workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

Facing the December deadline of an EU boycott of all Thai seafood, the junta has toughened up the country’s current and toothless Fisheries Act through a fast-track ‘Royal Ordinance 2015’ – a legal device that bypasses normal legislative procedures.

Within the raft of new legislation, Thai deep-sea trawlers are to be banned from overfishing and must now install vessel monitoring systems. They must also ensure that their catches are not linked to illegal fishing and slave labour.


Undocumented migrant workers

At the end of November, Wimol Jantrarotai, Director General of Thailand’s Fisheries Department, announced in the national media that measures were now in place to ensure sustainable fishing. He was quoted as saying that illegal trawlers will no longer be allowed to operate, that environmentally destructive fishing equipment will be banned and that there will be a limit on fishing activities to prevent overfishing.

Jantrarotai’s office declined to speak to Equal Times to further clarify the status of migrant and undocumented migrant workers in the fishing industry.

According to trade unions, there are around 250,000 Burmese nationals working in Thailand’s fisheries industry, both in on-shore processing plants, where the workers are mostly women, and in the country’s vast 40,000-vessel fishing fleet.

They are amongst an estimated four million Burmese economic migrants working – both legally and illegally – in Thailand, who have fled poverty wages and political repression in their homeland, which until the landslide election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy last month, was ruled for decades by a series of military dictatorships.

Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) share a 2000 kilometre long border.

In an ongoing scandal, undocumented workers are often trafficked across this porous frontier and sold into servitude as domestic workers, construction labourers, garment workers and fishers.

Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of shrimp and frozen and canned tuna, with the multinational corporation Thai Union Group PLC owning some of the top tinned tuna brands, notably Chicken of the Sea in the United States and John West in the United Kingdom.

In 2014 Thai Union exported almost 600,000 metric tonnes of tuna; 44 per cent of its sales were to the United States and 29 per cent to Europe.

Shrimp is the company’s other big seller, comprising just under 30 per cent of seafood exports.

“Slavery is rife in the Thai fishing industry,” the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow told Equal Times.

“Yet again we see the connection between environmental degradation and workers’ rights abuses in a global supply chain. John West and Thai Union need to take responsibility, and play their part in ending slavery and ecological destruction in the Thai seafood industry.”


“Utterly unacceptable”

In March earlier this year Khun Thiraphong Chansiri, President and CEO of Thai Union Group, conceded that human trafficking was “utterly unacceptable”, with the proviso that “it is difficult to ensure the Thai seafood industry’s supply chain is 100 per cent clean.”

This is the closest that Chansiri has come to admitting the deeply embedded exploitation of migrant workers in his company and throughout the industry.

Chansiri has now asked NGOs – somewhat disingenuously, critics might say – “to work with the public and private sectors to improve fisheries practices.”

And he urged NGOs to do something “constructive and find solutions to make an improvement in the [fishing] industry.”

What – one undoubtedly has a right to ask – does Chansiri think that trade unions and other clean fishing campaigners have been doing since 2008?

Meantime, as Thai Union Group steadies its proposed US$1.5 billion takeover of major US canned tuna company Bumble Bee Foods – an acquisition currently being investigated by that country’s Department of Justice –Thailand’s fishing industry has been rocked by yet another expose.

On 4 November, Greenpeace Southeast Asia released a report on their three-year investigation into human rights violations in the fishing industry in Indonesian waters.

According to the report, there are 189 Thai vessels trawling the Pacific’s Arafura Sea, to the north of Australia, with an estimated 5,000 workers, mostly Burmese, stranded and trapped in slavery.

The report said that most of these trawlers supplied fish to Thai Union.

Thai Union has denied the claims.

But what they can’t deny is the testimony of Saing Winna, another abandoned Burmese migrant fisher this reporter interviewed on Tual Island.

“The problem was one of our young Burmese guys; a Thai cook beat him with an iron bar in front of my eyes. The skipper asked if the guy was dead or not.

“I told him: ‘He hasn’t died yet, leave him alone, I’ll look after him.’

“The guy was hit at the back of the head and his brains spilled out. I grabbed him. He took an hour to die…the young guy took an hour to die.

“I think our Burmese boatmen die like dogs and pigs.”

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