Seeking to repair the bruised reputation of its notoriously abusive and migrant worker-dependant seafood industry, Thailand announced on Monday a plan to inspect conditions of the fishing sector beginning next month.
The survey is intended to address forced-labour concerns in the industry after the US State Department relegated Thailand to the lowest possible ranking on its human-trafficking watch list earlier this year.
The demotion was largely attributed to brutal and violent conditions aboard Thai fishing vessels, which are manned almost exclusively by undocumented migrants.
While there are no official figures for how many employees help float Thailand’s $7.3 billion seafood industry, independent surveys have estimated the fleet comprises between 200,000 and 300,000 migrants from Thailand’s neighbouring countries, mostly Cambodia and Myanmar. And many of the workers aren’t on the boats of their own volition – an International Labour Organisation study last year found that approximately 17 per cent of surveyed fisherman worked against their will.
Thailand’s attempts to stymie the abuse by regularising migrant fishermen have long failed, and while the junta’s current registration window program has doled out temporary documents to more than a million foreign workers, fewer than 50,000 of them are fishermen.
“There are few benefits to becoming a regular migrant, and the time and cost required are disincentives,” said Max Tunon, a senior program officer at ILO.
“Even for registered boats, crew lists are not always maintained,” he added.
In recent years, the Post has published numerous accounts of Cambodians tricked into work aboard Thai fishing vessels, where they said they suffered physical and mental abuse.
The Thai Ministry of Labour last year estimated that only one in six vessels were registered.
How Thailand’s planned survey intends to tackle the registration shortage and address “the grave human trafficking problem” remains unclear: the government’s announcement included plans for “amending and enacting new labour laws” to protect the fishermen, but observers are sceptical that laws long stuck in the drafting phase will reform the industry anytime soon.
"There is no real reason for another survey … the facts are well-known already,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia. “What's been lacking all along is political commitment to systematically address the problem through law reform, enforcement, and support for victims to seek redress."