Respect, not restraints, for workers in Thailand's seafood industry

Migrant worker held captive

Workers in cages – that’s what reporters from the Associated Press found during a year-long investigation into forced labor in the global seafood supply chain. The workers were Burmese nationals, trafficked onto Thai-run fishing vessels working for an Indonesian firm in Indonesian waters, underlining the complex, global nature of the problem. While the cries of help the AP documented from these trapped workers has shaken the industry and led to renewed calls for action, their voices are rarely included in the solutions. All too often efforts to “reform” the industry leave them as vulnerable as ever.

Forced labor has been documented in all stages of Thailand’s seafood sector in dozens of reports over more than a decade, and yet the situation has not improved because the Thai government and industry have been unwilling to address the root cause of human trafficking in Thailand’s seafood sector: discriminatory and unfair treatment of Thailand’s migrant worker population.

Thailand is home to an estimated 3-4 million migrant workers, most from neighboring Burma, as well as Cambodia and Laos. They are the engine that keeps Thailand’s export economy humming, because they are willing to do jobs that many Thai nationals aren’t. How these workers find their jobs and register with Thai authorities is at the heart of Thailand’s trafficking problem. To solve it, government must develop regulations and enforcement mechanisms, and industry must foster business cultures, that ensure respect for the rights of migrant workers and include their active participation in efforts to decrease their own vulnerability to human traffickers.

The first necessary change must come from industry itself. Currently, Thai export companies pass the cost of finding labor to the workers themselves, and often confiscate workers’ identification documents. Workers must pay recruiters and labor brokers, who also sometimes demand payment from employers to provide workers. All of these charges are passed on to workers in the form of debts that must be paid off, and are usually deducted directly from their salaries. The debts are often equivalent to several months’ salary for low-paid workers and are frequently used, paired with document confiscation, to trap workers in debt bondage.

The seafood industry as a whole must take a stand and prohibit both recruiters and employers from charging workers recruitment fees and confiscating identity documents. Seafood buyers, including Western retailers, can help by making clear to their suppliers they will not purchase products made by workers forced to pay recruitment fees or denied access to their identity documents. Buyers should also work with their suppliers to enforce these prohibitions throughout their supply chains, all the way down to the boat level.

Boat-level traceability was a hot term at the International Seafood Expo in Boston earlier this month, and is another important contribution industry can make to cleaning up supply chains. However, as the AP report makes clear, hiring 3rd party auditors to monitor supply chains is not sufficient. Companies must work with their suppliers to map their full supply chain, establish worker-based grievance mechanisms, and remediate rights violations whenever they occur.

Mapping, regular inspections, and remediation should be conducted in cooperation with migrant worker organizations, who should be consulted from the beginning in developing monitoring and remediation systems. ILRF’s partner on the ground, the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), has shown remarkable success in identifying abusive employers and improving conditions by organizing and empowering migrant workers themselves. They are the ones who know best how to establish the systems needed to reduce their vulnerability to human trafficking.

Industry action must be accompanied by the Thai government fulfilling its duty to regulate and enforce labor laws that protect vulnerable populations. Specifically, the Thai government needs to amend the Labor Relations Act of 1975 to allow migrant workers to change employers without losing their legal status to work in Thailand, and allow migrant workers to form and lead their own unions to protect their voice on the job and negotiate for better working conditions. The mandate of the Recruitment and Job-Seekers Protection Act of 1985 must also be expanded to include regulation of labor brokers who bring workers into Thailand (currently, the law only applies to outbound migration from Thailand).

Another urgently needed reform is in the registration process for migrant workers, which is governed by a complicated patchwork of Memoranda of Understanding with sending countries. Processes change every few years, leaving migrant workers confused as to what is required and dependent on labor brokers and/or employers to complete the process. Bribery is practically built into the system, and profits are reportedly being shared between brokers or employers and government officials themselves. Thailand must move beyond temporary fixes and develop a worker registration system that allows workers to obtain legal working documents that do not bind them to their employer, minimizes costs to workers, and provides a semi-permanent status with clear, simple renewal processes.

New regulations are meaningless, however, if Thailand continues its abysmal record of enforcement. In 2014, the Human Rights and Development Foundation, a Thai NGO that provides legal assistance to migrant workers, found only 11 human trafficking investigations from fishing vessels, out of 222 cases. The Environmental Justice Foundation has shown that despite reports of significant investment to improve labor inspections on boats, inspectors still did not have the translators required to speak to crew directly, and were relying on the ship’s captain for information on working conditions, a situation akin to asking the fox how the chickens are being treated.

Ensuring an end to the horrific conditions described in the AP report is going to be a long-term effort that will require dedicated action from industry and government actors alike. But these efforts must move toward a goal of empowering the migrant workers in Thailand’s seafood sector to defend their fundamental human rights, and providing access to remedy when their rights are violated. Solutions that only monitor conditions are doomed to fail, because they leave workers trapped in an inherently exploitative system. We must move past listening to the cries of these workers after they are already victims of forced labor, and include their demands for equal and decent treatment into reforms by both the seafood industry and Thai government.