European Union inspectors will begin visiting Thai fishing ports Wednesday as part of a monitoring effort that has the potential to impact tens of thousands of Cambodian workers.
The EU teams are set to visit random Port In, Port Out (PIPO) offices designed to keep track of fishermen in order to prevent labour issues, which have been rampant in the Thai fishing industry.
The European Commission issued a “yellow card” on the notorious industry in 2015 – warning that if improvements were not made an import ban could be imposed. The inspection results and other findings are likely to determine if such a measure is taken.
According to the Bangkok Post, Deputy Prime Minister Chatchai Sarikulya was optimistic ahead of the inspection, saying the Thai Labour Ministry had registered about 1 million migrant fishery workers, among them tens of thousands of Cambodians.
“Thailand no longer has illegal migrants working on commercial trawlers or in fishing-related businesses as we have completed registering them,” he said, adding they had scanned their irises for identification purposes, going beyond the EU requirements.
But a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published earlier this year found that the Thai labour “inspection regime is largely a theatrical exercise for international consumption”, noting that under the PIPO system, “officials speak to ship captains and boat owners and check documents but rarely conduct interviews with migrant fishers”, meaning cases of trafficking could simply fall through the cracks.
“EU inspectors have to be tough with the Thai government and not be fooled by these efforts to distract attention with big numbers of questionable relevance to solving the underlying problems of abuse the fishermen face,” said HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams in an email.
“What’s at issue is the shoddy, pro-forma quality of labor inspections both at the PIPOs and at sea, and the failure to enforce basic provisions of the labor law, like hours of work, minimum wage, timely payments, and health and safety protections.”
Khun Tharo, a senior program officer at Solidarity Center, agreed that many issues remained, including child labour and restrictions on migrant workers leading labour unions. “Many of the boat owners and employers are involved in the high ranks of the Thai government, which makes it difficult for fishing workers to get justice when they seek compensation through cases at the court,” he added.
But fisherman Cheng Nall, 31, said there had been a significant improvement and he feared the loss of work that might come from an EU ban on imports.
Nall has been employed in the industry for 10 years and is required to work every day. He received his legal documents just last year after paying 20,000 baht ($641), half of which was paid by his employer.
“I am really concerned if the EU bans the fishing industry, it may impact my work as I now am satisfied with my income,” he said. “Compared to the last few years, we get better conditions and higher wages.”
The EU Delegation in Thailand did not respond to requests for comment.
Cambodian Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the issue was for the EU and Thailand to resolve, but added that the Thai government had made “many reforms”.
“[The] Thai government has a sincere commitment to cooperate with us on [the] labour sector and crackdown [on] employers who illegally employ … the foreign workers,” he said in a message.