By Pratch Rujivanarom
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok heard yesterday that human trafficking and forced labour are still rife on fishing vessels and in the seafood industry. Given such widespread unsolved abuses, unions are a crucial defence against workers being exploited and the economic risks that brings, the Thai and Migrant Fishers Union Group (TMFG) told representatives of Thai authorities, civil society, and the fisheries union. The conference was in agreement that the best method to mitigate the problems faced by fisheries workers was to allow them to organise in unions so they could negotiate collectively with their employers.
TMFG is the unofficial union for the fishing industry. It was set up in 2015 by Thai and migrant workers who had been trafficked into forced labour at sea and then ditched by their employers in Indonesia. The union helps fellow workers who have suffered the same fate.
Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) manager Patima Tungpuchayakul said that three years after the problems of workers and victim to forced labour and unjust employment conditions in Thailand’s overseas fishing fleet at Indonesia were uncovered, many of them have still not got justice, while a lot of workers were not even brought back home.
Patima revealed that Thai fishing workers remain stranded on remote islands in the Indonesian archipelago, while others who had been rescued and returned home are yet to receive wages due or compensation from their former employers.
“Even though LPN and TMFG have rescued nearly 3,000 workers from Indonesia and returned them to the embrace of their family, we are still receiving distress calls from many workers in the Thai fishing fleet who are still stranded in Indonesia,” she said.
“We estimate that hundreds of workers from Thailand and neighbouring countries have been left behind in remote parts of Indonesia, since we are still finding many workers from Thai fishing vessels during our field surveys in Indonesia.”
She also revealed that legal action to secure unpaid wages and compensation was still dragging on, a full three years after the majority of workers were rescued.
According to the LPN and TMFG representatives, many more "leftover" trafficked workers have likely been dumped across the Indonesian archipelago, outside the areas already examined, including in Timor, South Papua and Kalimantan.
“Former victims of forced labour and human trafficking in the fishing industry at the TMFG play vital roles in working with fellow workers in distress and connecting them with rights groups and authorities in order to get help,” Patima said.
TMFG co-founder Chairat Ratchapaksi said he and other members decided to form the group after experiencing firsthand the suffering caused by serious rights violations, unjust employment and hostile working conditions.
“As we have all endured hardship similar to that being experienced by our fellow fisheries workers, we understand their situation and we are in the best position to assist them,” Chairat said.
He reported that since 2015, the union has rescued more than 60 victims of human trafficking marooned in Indonesia, while also campaigning to secure payment of wages and asking for compensation for the victims.
Thanaporn Sriyakul, adviser to the deputy prime minister, acknowledged that stricter laws and improved monitoring by the authorities alone were not enough to tackle problems in the Thai seafood industry and protect workers’ rights. As such the fisheries workers union was playing an important part in helping the authorities to achieve fair employment in the industry and deterring illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).
“The government is now endorsing an amendment to the Labour Relations Act to allow the creation of a migrant workers union to support their rights protection,” Thanaporn said.
“This would fit well with the good work of TMFG and I believe can help solve the problems of workers in fishing industry.”
Thailand remains on the European Union’s watch list for illegal fishing, which helps fuel a seafood industry that contributed a whopping Bt210 billion to Thai exports in 2014.