Slavery in Thailand’s Fishing Industry

BY ROBERT DELLINGER

Seafood workers in Thailand’s fishing industry (Adam Dean/New York Times).

Seafood is one of the largest trade commodities in the world. The seafood industry employs over 260 million workers globally and 3 billion people rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. Thailand is the world’s fourth-largest seafood processing industry. Thailand’s fishing industry is estimated to bring 7 billion-dollars in revenue annually and has deep political and economic roots as it is a large supplier to the European Union and the US. Unsustainable fishing has degraded Thailand’s fisheries to the point that many vessel operators slash labor costs through the use of trafficked slave labor in its fishing sector. The Thai government estimates 300,000 people work in its fishing industry, 90 percent of whom are undocumented immigrants vulnerable to trafficking and enslavement. Thailand’s fishing vessels are integral to global consumption of seafood as these fleets provide fish for major corporations like Walmart, Carrefour, Costco, and Tesco.

As seafood production per capita increases, the role of the seafood sector as a significant contributor to modern slavery has become a widespread issue identified in over 50 countries. The Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons 2014 Report, which evaluates 188 nations on how well they combat human trafficking, downgraded Thailand from a Tier 2 to the lowest Tier 3 ranking. As fuel prices increase, making fish harder and more expensive to catch, the exploitation of labor in the fishing industry becomes directly linked to the degradation of fish stocks. A globalized seafood industry with opaque supply chains makes it difficult for consumers to avoid slave-caught seafood. The lack of traceability in our seafood industry makes it a challenge to assess how prevalent slave-caught seafood could be in our society.

The widespread exploitation of labor is due to political turbulence, economic pressures to maintain profitable enterprises, and the vulnerability of migrant populations. In Thailand’s fishing industry, there is an immense incentive to boost private profits and the overall economy by minimizing labor costs. Thai officials understand the importance of the fishing industry to the Thai economy and therefore turn a blind eye to the violations that occur within it. Political instability and the military regime only magnify the issues as officials are discouraged from making changes for the sake of maintaining the Thai economy. As authorities accept bribes from fishing companies, they turn their eyes  away from the blatant human rights violations.

For those enslaved by the Thai fishing industry, the ocean is their battlefield. The bulk of those enslaved by the fishing sector are undocumented immigrants from Myanmar and Cambodia. The housing instability that often results from immigration makes these populations susceptible to kidnappings and other human trafficking crimes. Thailand has also received an influx of populations seeking refuge due to the recent tragedy of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar, and fleeing from economic crisis making them vulnerable to these human trafficking crimes. Currently the lack of legal distinction between human trafficking and forced labor makes justice difficult as corrupt governments that play a role in human trafficking inevitably allow people to be enslaved. Forced labor and trafficking need to be distinguished, primarily because confusing the two weakens trafficking as a legal idea. In addition to the current political, social, and economic conditions that are essential to maintaining exploitative labor, some new troubles facing enslaved workers are the strategies the industry has developed to escape regulation. One core mechanism which the Thai fishing industry is now using is keeping enslaved workers in  transhipment vessels. These prevent fishing vessels from docking, preventing the people being kept as slaves from ever reaching port. Imprisoned on transhipment vessels, countless men are enslaved and stranded at sea, with no means of communication and no way to escape.

If policy exposed the injustices and dangers presented by modern fishing trade, ordering dinner would be a much more emotive experience. It is clear that reforms are necessary in the fishing industry to yield results as political and economic turbulence enable corruption. Potential solutions need to focus on migrant workers and their rights as well as a legal framework for addressing human rights abuses by the fishing sector. Alongside this approach, limiting the fishing yield and regulating the industry in Thai waters could work to decrease economic incentives for slave labor. It is, however, more difficult to implement reform than to theorize it. Human rights violations within the fishing industry and exploitative labor practices are complex issues which slew into other problems that plague Southeast Asia;no single reform agenda can address them. However, piecemeal reform with a comprehensive focus could potentially go a long way towards undermining the violent power dynamics at play which allow for the continuous exploitation of marginalized peoples by slavers and the fishing sector in Thailand. The lack of monitoring, transparency, and sustainability keep consumers in the dark unintentionally supporting a seafood industry that is carried out through human trafficking. It is time to start asking our political leaders and the seafood industry where our seafood is coming from.

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