Forced labour remains rampant on Thai fishing boats more than three years after an international outcry, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released yesterday, with Cambodian fishermen reporting that Thai reforms designed to safeguard them from abuse are being used as tools to further enslave them.
Some 248 current and former fishermen were interviewed and every Thai port was visited for the report, “Hidden Chain: Forced Labor and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry”. Of those interviewed, 70 were Cambodian.
One of them, Nam Hak, said in a video accompanying the report that he had been duped by his employers and was told he would be working in a fish canning factory.
“But when we arrived at the boat owner’s house, they just put us on the boat. Some of us had never been on a boat before. We were scared. They kicked us and forced us onto the boat,” he said.
Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand, said that new regulations, including port inspections and the implementation of identity documents commonly known as “pink cards”, have been largely ineffective in improving the lives of fishermen. The cards were supposed to give undocumented workers legal identities, while granting migrants permission to work in an industry for a certain period of time.
But like passports, pink cards are often “seized” by employers, leaving fishermen vulnerable to abuse because they cannot change their employer without their permission.
“The pink card holders are supposed to receive all the protections under the Thai labour law, but in fact the effect has been just the opposite,” Sunai said.
“The pink card is highly restrictive, limiting workers to one type of work, and one employer, and this is just the perfect example of how the reform has failed workers.”
The report also found that port inspections were woefully inadequate, in part because they were “chronically understaffed”.
“Over 50,000 inspections of fishers implausibly did not find a single instance where laws on conditions and hours of work, wages, treatment on board, and other [laws] . . . had been violated,” the report said.
Other Cambodian workers surveyed described working under debt bondage.
“Our money is with [the owner], so he can decide to give us permission [to change jobs] or not. They hold all the power and we can’t do anything,” said Sinuon Sao.
“You can’t leave because if you leave you won’t get paid, and if you want to leave at the end it’s only if they let you,” another fisherman, Bien Vorn, added.
Human Rights Watch said the reforms fell below the expectations of the European Union, which had issued Thailand a “yellow card” over abuses and threatened to ban seafood imports unless conditions drastically improved.
Reports of abuse, slavery and even deaths on fishing boats were unearthed in investigations in 2015 by the Associated Press.
Human Rights Watch recommended further reforms, chief among them urging Thailand to make forced labour a stand-alone criminal offence.
The US Embassy in Cambodia declined to comment yesterday, but a spokesperson for the EU delegation to Thailand said they “welcomed the research”.
“Thailand has made continuous progress on labour matters. We will continue to cooperate and support the Thai government in its efforts to address the remaining challenges,” they said .
Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, the chairman of Thailand’s National Fisheries Association, insisted previous issues with abuse in the industry had been solved.
“There was plenty of labour so the opportunity to exploit workers was quite high. But now, things have changed completely,” he said. “Every problem has been fixed by the current government . . . there is no more forced labour.”
Speaking to The Post this week by phone aboard a Thai fishing boat, Chann Neang, 36, told a different story. He articulated an issue identified in HRW’s report – employers demanding interest on loans workers take out in order to pay for their documents.
Despite an above minimum-wage salary, Neang said he was forced to work 18-hour shifts and was provided just two meals a day.
“Every time I get sick, I still need to go to work, it’s so difficult for me to ask for leave,” he said.
Morm Khin, a former fisherman who now works with anti-trafficking NGO FAR, said many employers would not pay workers monthly, but rather every six months or even once every 18 months, leaving them vulnerable and trapped. He estimated around 50,000 to 60,000 Cambodian fishermen were working on Thai boats.
Some victims, like Hak, got out.
“When I arrived home, everyone just cried,” he said in the video. “All my relatives thought I had died. I had disappeared for so many years.”