[English translation courtesy Nanchanok Wongsamuth - click link for original article in Thai]
The Corrections Department has ordered a ban on the production of fishing nets nationwide, while also increasing wages for some jobs under a plan to “reform prison labor”, following reports that inmates were being forced to make fishing nets for private companies.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation published in December found inmates at some Thai prisons were forced to make fishing nets for private companies under threat of punishment, while some did not receive payment for their work.
Chan Vachiradath, a deputy director-general at the Corrections Department, told BBC Thai that on May 2, the department issued a notification to prisons and correctional institutions that had signed contracts for the making of fishing nets to terminate the contracts.
“Prison labor is an issue that people are concerned about in terms of forcing inmates to make fishing nets. The Corrections Department has therefore issued orders to reform prison labor according to human rights principles,” Chan told BBC Thai in a written response, following orders from the Corrections Department director-general to reform prison labor in March.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation report said prison officers punished inmates by beating them with batons, withdrawing the right to wash or pushing back their release date if they did not meet stringent targets.
The Corrections Department denied the use of forced labor in prisons.
Thailand has the largest prison population in Southeast Asia, with about 266,700 inmates in its 143 jails, mostly on drug convictions.
The Corrections Department said they couldn’t determine the amount of inmates involved in making fishing nets, but Bordin Sereeyothin, chief marketing officer of Khon Kaen Fishing Net, Thailand’s biggest fishing net producer, told BBC Thai that “almost every prison in Thailand” produced fishing nets, and estimated that more than 100,000 inmates were involved.
The Corrections Department deputy director-general said the fishing net contracts will not be renewed once they are set to expire in September. Prisoners who were making fishing nets will go through a Prisoner Classification process conducted by a multidisciplinary team of correctional institutional professionals to allocate job training or work.
In March, the Corrections Department director-general ordered prisons to undergo labor reform by setting up committees to improve the treatment of prisoners to be in line with international standards, including the Mandela Rules, which calls on member states to run a “system of equitable remuneration of the work of prisoners”.
According to information given to BBC Thai by the Corrections Department, some prisons have announced policies to increase the remuneration rate by 3-30% for specific types of work, including for the production of fishing nets, folding bags and needlework.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that most inmates received about 30 baht per month, while some said they did not receive any payment.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation sent freedom of information requests to 142 jails, of which 54 disclosed contracts with companies or individuals to produce fishing nets.
Another 30 responded and disclosed contracts in other sectors, while the others either did not respond or did not use prison labour.
Most of the prisons that disclosed contracts redacted the names of companies and individuals, citing an order from the Department of Corrections. The Thomson Reuters Foundation obtained some redacted names after submitting appeals.
They include Khon Kaen Fishing Net, which sends its semi-finished nets from its factories to prisons.
Bordin said the company is prepared to follow the Correction Department’s regulations, and that the majority of the work will be finished by next month. But he said inmates will face a lack of incomes, since it would be difficult for prisons to immediately find new jobs for them.
He added that fishermen will also be affected, as they will face a lack of products due to the shortage of labor, resulting in an increase in prices of the products.
“There is no other way to catch shrimp and crab, and I think either by the end of this year or early next year, the prices of shrimp and crab will soar,” Bordin told BBC Thai.
“Finding hundreds of thousands of workers is not an easy task, and at the end of the day, it’s the fishermen and consumers who will face the burden.”
Thailand has for years been under pressure tackle abuses in its multi-billion-dollar seafood industry, including human trafficking, forced labour and violence on boats and at onshore processing facilities.
In 2014, the government came up with a plan for inmates who volunteered and had less than a year left in prison to work on fishing vessels to tackle the shortage of labor and human trafficking.
But the plan was cancelled following criticism from labor rights organizations, and in recent years, Thailand has improved its efforts on tackling modern slavery, which is a new term that covers human trafficking, forced labor, child labor, traditional slavery, prostitution and forced marriages.
In its latest annual report, the United States said Thailand was making significant efforts to eliminate trafficking, including by improving coordination with civil society, though official corruption was undermining anti-trafficking efforts.
Thailand is home to about 610,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by the rights group Walk Free Foundation.
The Walk Free Foundation has put Thailand in a group of countries with high risk of slavery in the fishing sector, while a 2016 study by Human Rights Watch said 76% of workers in Thailand’s fishing industry were in debt, 31.5% were forced to work, 15.7% were physically attacked and 6.5% were lured into working in Thailand.
PETITION TO THE U.S.
In February, local and international human rights organizations submitted a petition to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to ban imports of fishing nets from two Thai suppliers.
Under the U.S. Tariff Act, goods made using forced or prison labour are barred from entering the country, and the CBP has the authority to issue detention orders against such goods and prevent their sale in markets.
Rights groups have in the past cited the law to press for the eradication of forced labour and labour involving prisoners in global supply chains.
From October 2020 to September 2021, the CBP detained more than 1,469 shipments valued at about US$486 million over forced labour allegations, the agency said.
The U.S. Department of Labor previously told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was "concerned about the allegation of prisons in Thailand using inmates to produce fishing nets for private companies", pointing out that the Tariff Act prohibits the import of goods produced by prison or forced labor.
Khon Kaen Fishing Net’s Bordin told BBC Thai that all of its fishing nets produced in prisons are sold in Thailand and ASEAN countries.
“MORE TO BE DONE”
Although human rights organizations welcome the steps by the Thai government, they agree that more needs to be done to end forced labor in prisons.
Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), one of the organizations that submitted the petition to the CBP, said the government should publicly release the findings of the labor committees, ensure that wages are in line with minimum wage rules, and allow independent inspection bodies access to all prisons.
The government should also consider providing remedy for prisoners who have been exploited in the making of fishing nets in the past.
“This case shows that the Thai government must do much more to effectively identify and hold accountable Thai companies that seek to profit from forced labor in their supply chains,” GLJ-ILRF executive director JJ Rosenbaum told BBC Thai.
Some 560,000 prisoners were victims of forced labour to the benefit of private individuals or organisations in 2016 - the most recent statistics - according to anti-slavery group Alliance 8.7.
Anasuya Syam, human rights and trade policy advisor at the Human Trafficking Legal Center, which provides legal assistance to human trafficking victims, said prisoners should never be forced to work, and those who choose to work voluntarily should receive a minimum wage or more.
"Forced labor is illegal under international law. It should not exist in Thailand, or any other nation….Governments must not exploit individuals in their custody as forced laborers. Everyone has a right to decent work,” she said.
HOPE FOR INMATES
The Corrections Department does not allow reporters to interview inmates at its prisons, but BBC Thai contacted Petch, who used to make fishing nets in a prison in the southern province of Songkhla before being released in 2019.
Petch said he saw fellow inmates kicked and beaten for not being able to meet the daily target, and that each inmate would receive a payment of 80-150 baht every six months. Petch himself received a payment of 80 baht every six months, which was later increased to 80 baht per month.
“But it’s still not worth it. It’s too much work,” said the 28-year-old, who ask to be identified only by his nickname.
Earlier this month, Petch said he called his elder brother who is imprisoned at Songkhla Provincial Prison. His brother said the prison had announced that they would no longer produce fishing nets, which gave hope to Petch that the Corrections Department would do as they promised.
“I think it’s a good thing, since the inmates would not be so tired with all the hard work, and when they don’t finish, then they are punished. If they no longer have to do it, their lives will be much better,” Petch said.