28 Mar 2019 - Though the seas around Thailand are much admired for their beauty, they have mostly been depopulated of fish. According to a recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, “Boats now catch just 14 percent of what they caught in the mid-1960s and Thailand’s fish stocks and marine biodiversity are in crisis.” This is driving fishing boats farther and farther out to sea.
More and more fishing boats resort to bringing in so called, ‘trash fish’ to use as fish meal for prawns in shrimp farms, or as pet food for western consumers. Thailand is the largest shrimp exporter in the world, with 70 percent coming from the aquaculture.
As Thailand’s economic growth rates have risen, so too, has its need for labour. However, Thailand’s working age population like many countries in the region has dropped precipitously. This has led Thailand’s seafood industry to rely more and more on Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian migrant workers to fill the gap in dangerous professions like industrial fishing. And as fish catches decline and operating costs rise, some unscrupulous business owners are exploiting this unprotected group.
There are over two million registered migrant workers in Thailand, and most likely many more unregistered. Of the former, the Thai Ministry of Labour estimates that 222,000 work in the seafood processing and approximately 129,000 work on fishing vessels. Migrants are not granted the same rights as Thai nationals, so they are more vulnerable.
Vulnerabilities of migrant workers
The risks that these migrant workers face came to the surface in 2014, when journalists from the Guardian and the Associated Press discovered Burmese and Thai nationals in slave camps on remote islands off Indonesia. These stories were followed by others involving enslavement in shrimp peeling sheds. The horror they elicited prompted consumer-led boycotts. Brand name, international buyers placed stop-orders on Thai seafood, and the US Department of State downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest possible ranking, in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The report faulted the country for failing to “investigate, prosecute, and convict ship owners and captains for extracting forced labor from migrant workers, or officials who may be complicit in these crimes”.
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