Seafood Labor Activists Blast US for Thailand, Taiwan Rankings in TIP Report That Give a Pass to Widespread Worker Abuses

The Groups Say Thailand Should Have Remained on Tier 2 Watchlist and Taiwan Downgraded to Tier 2

Washington D.C. – Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) and allies in the Seafood Working Group (SWG) today said the U.S. government has given a pass to Thailand and Taiwan on widespread abuses in the countries’ fishing and seafood processing sectors by upgrading them in its latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report

“We are dismayed and disappointed that the U.S. State Department is in effect condoning and rewarding the Thai and Taiwanese governments’ failures to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. We have documented widespread abuses of migrant workers and forced labor in the fishing industry in both countries and we will continue to fight with local and international allies to eradicate them and help all workers ensure the right to advocate for themselves, form unions and bargain collectively,” said Kimberly Rogovin, Senior Seafood Campaign Coordinator of GLJ-ILRF.

For years, the SWG has urged the U.S. government to use its diplomatic and economic power to demand companies around the world respect labor rights if they want access to the U.S. market. This year the group issued reports on Thailand and Taiwan, outlining abuses in the seafood industry and calling for them to be ranked Tier 2 Watch List and Tier 2, respectively.  

Instead, the U.S. State Department announced today its decision to upgrade Thailand to Tier 2 and to maintain Taiwan at Tier 1.

According to the State Department’s report, the key reason for the Thailand upgrade appears to be the increased number of trafficking investigations. Increasing investigations is needed, the SWG says, but it is not a significant indicator of improvement when the government maintains discriminatory legal frameworks and fails to promote and protect labor rights for vulnerable categories of workers. 

“The upgrade to Tier 2 was not warranted as Thailand still restricts migrant workers' fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. All humans are entitled to the right to form a trade union or association in order to collectively bargain, irrespective of their nationality. Respecting these rights can mitigate social conflicts and reduce the risks of falling victim to human trafficking. For work to be decent, the Thai government must guarantee the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining,” said Suthasinee Kaewleklai, Coordinator at Migrant Workers Rights Network in Thailand. 

The SWG says that the State Department should not have upgraded Thailand until it makes critical reforms. They are calling on the Thai government to:  

  1. Ensure full rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining for all workers in line with international standards;

  2. Establish long-term, comprehensive labor migration protections for migrants that effectively ban recruitment fees and eliminates private employment agencies from the process;

  3. Withdraw the Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations;

  4. Ensure victim-centered and trauma-informed prosecutions;

  5. Establish regular, rigorous labor inspections; and 

  6. Provide legal guidance to law enforcement officials so they can effectively identify the crimes of human trafficking and forced labor.  

"The Thai government proclaims its dedication to stamping out human trafficking, but at the same time, it is pushing forward a draft law on non-profit organizations with onerous restrictions on NGOs that will effectively wipe out many of the civil society groups who are working on the front line of anti-trafficking response. The U.S. government and other governments who care about stopping human trafficking in the Mekong sub-region should intervene to tell Thailand to drop that rights-abusing NGO law before it's too late," said Phil Roberston, Deputy Director for Asia, Human Rights Watch.

“Myanmar people are struggling to survive under the military dictatorship that has forced many to flee in search of work to support themselves and family back home. Companies in the global seafood supply chain in Thailand and elsewhere have taken advantage of desperate migrants, denying them of their rights and forcing them to work under abusive conditions for little pay. The Thai government has turned a blind eye to trafficking and maintained unsafe migration channels. We need the U.S. to keep up an international campaign to help Myanmar people and other migrants win full rights under the law,” said Htoo Chit,  Founder and Director, Foundation for Education and Development (FED).

SWG Says Taiwan Hasn’t Taken Sufficient Steps to Protect Migrant Fishers

The SWG has also called out abuses in the Taiwanese fishing industry, sharing its own recent findings, including the government’s failure to conduct timely investigations into the working conditions on the Da-Wang and Chin-Chun No. 12 vessels– despite strong indicators of human trafficking– until the U.S. government issued a trade ban. The SWG report also found that the government had not taken the necessary steps to identify and protect survivors through provision of services, nor did it administer labor inspections on distant water fishing vessels, which has allowed companies to keep victims hidden and outside the government’s safety net.

“As a human rights organization that maintains long-standing concerns about the abusive labor conditions of the migrant fishers on Taiwanese vessels, the Taiwan Association for Human Rights strongly disagrees with the U.S. Department of State's decision to maintain Taiwan's Tier 1 ranking. This not only fails to reflect the severity of human trafficking and forced labor in Taiwan, but also fails to effectively encourage the Taiwanese government to take further action against human trafficking,” said Yi-Hsiang, Shih, Secretary General of Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR).

“It is disappointing, but not surprising, to see the Tier 1 grading in the TIP Report once again. The U.S. government should be able to look past the government’s public relations efforts and see the real situation. The fact is: most of the discrimination, forced labor, human trafficking, and violations of human and labor rights of migrant workers has not changed at all. A small raise in the minimum wage for domestic workers and distant water fishermen—who have been excluded from the Labor Standard Act and the general minimum wage until now—cannot make up for their ongoing exploitation that the Tier 1 grading fails to recognize. Geopolitics should be separate from human rights,” said Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, Director of the Department of Policies on Migrant Workers, Serve the People Association, Taoyuan (SPA).

“While Taiwan remains at Tier 1, the government will not be forced to face the music that there are victims of human rights exploitation in our society. Migrant fishers will still be discriminated against under the law and exploited by manning agencies and boat captains. The abuse of migrant workers will remain hidden from the international community,” said Jason Lee, Member of the Fishermen Service Section at Rerum Novarum Center in Taiwan. 

The SWG has asked the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP Office) to support the following recommendations to the Taiwanese government. The members aver to continue to press the governments of the U.S. and Taiwan to address these issues: 

  1. Abolish the overseas employment scheme for migrant fishers and ensure all migrant fishers are governed by the Ministry of Labor and thus afforded the same rights and protections as Taiwanese fishers.

  2. Establish a clear timeline for swift and full domestication and implementation of the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188).

  3. Increase inspections on vessels of Taiwan-owned and flagged as well as Taiwan-owned and foreign flagged vessels, and prosecute the owners and senior crew suspected of forced labor, especially among the distant water fishing vessels.

  4. Deploy labor inspection personnel in foreign ports where Taiwan’s distant water fishing vessels are authorized to port, and train all maritime-related inspection authorities on victim identification and law enforcement.

  5. Increase transparency in the fishery sector by requiring disclosure of vessel position, 100% observer coverage, and ensuring the safety of all observers on all fishing vessels.

“Over the past 13 years, the Taiwanese government has designed numerous action plans and regulations just to maintain the minimum standards and keep Taiwan at Tier 1, but it has never taken any concrete action to prevent human trafficking of migrant fishers. Until the government actually implements the international labor conventions and domestic regulations it has committed to, uses public power to protect labor, and no longer condones the exploitation of labor by employers, they do not deserve the Tier 1 ranking,” said Allison Lee, Secretary-General of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union (YMFU) in Taiwan.

Frontline Taiwanese NGOs will hold an online press conference on the TIP Report on Thursday, 21 July 10:00-11:00AM Taiwan (20 July 10:00-11:00PM US EDT)

Hosted by: Coalition for the Protection of Human Rights of Migrant Fishers in Taiwan in collaboration with the Seafood Working Group (SWG)

You can join Thursday at: