Thailand wants to swap the crews aboard its notoriously abusive fishing boats, trading trafficking victims for prison inmates whose sentences will soon elapse.
The proposal – which seeks to remedy the country’s prison overcrowding and trafficking problems simultaneously – was initially shot down by the cabinet, but has since been resurrected as a pilot project that doesn’t need approval, according to Human Rights Watch.
Last week, Thailand’s labour minister announced that 176 inmates, with one year or less remaining on their sentences, would be recruited on a voluntary basis to help staff fishing fleets and replace the forced migrant labourers.
Chronic workforce shortages in Thailand’s $7.3-billion seafood industry have helped fuel a human-trafficking supply chain from neighbouring countries.
No official registers indicate how many men have been sold to Thai fishing vessels, but independent surveys have estimated that the boats are manned by upwards of 200,000 to 300,000 migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
But with 320,000 total prisoners in Thailand and many fewer eligible, let alone willing to risk their life and health on the boats, migrant advocates say the program is unlikely to curtail trafficking in the industry or exchange one cheap, vulnerable labour supply for another.
“The labour shortages on the fishing vessels are a direct result of . . . hardship and exploitation as no worker would like to work in such a condition if they had a choice,” said Reiko Harima, regional coordinator at the Mekong Migration Network.
“In order to reduce trafficking, the government needs to ensure that all the workers onboard the fishing vessels work in a safe and dignified condition.”
Thailand’s Department of Corrections yesterday said no one could comment on the details of the pilot project. A staff member who declined to provide a name did confirm, however that “there is a committee working on it”.
“It is an absolutely reckless and irresponsible idea,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia. “Thailand has no capacity to systematically inspect these fishing boats or stop the abuses.”
The US State Department relegated Thailand to the lowest possible ranking on its human trafficking watch list earlier this year, largely attributing the downgrade to brutal and violent conditions in the fishing industry including deaths, beatings, 20-hour work days, no pay and insufficient provisions of food or medical care.