By CHULARAT SAENGPASSA
THAILAND’S FISHING industry, which is notorious for its harsh and often brutal working conditions, is suffering from a serious labour shortage. Yet, fishing-vessel owners are enraged that the government plans to ratify a convention that will require significantly better conditions for workers.
For instance, the C188 Work in Fishing Convention will guarantee that workers on fishing vessels get at least 10 hours daily or a minimum of 77 hours of rest per week.
Once Thailand ratifies the C188, it is likely that fishing-vessel crews will be provided with protective gear and given access to the social-security scheme.
The new list of benefits for fishing vessel crew runs long, and is upsetting fishing operators. The biggest point of contention is the proposed requirement that one bedroom and toilet per four workers is provided on fishing boats. The convention also demands that each vessel include a library, a fitness room and a recreation room.
“It will be difficult to reconfigure all fishing boats when these requirements take effect. I have to tell you that a wrong adjustment could sink a boat,” National Fisheries Association of Thailand’s president Mongkhon Sukcharoenwattana cautioned. He said that he had enlarged his fishing vessels and learned that they could no longer cope with the wind.
Mongkhon pointed out that ratifying the C188 could very well destroy the country’s fishing industry.
“The government must be thinking that it will be easy for us to make adjustments. But in reality it isn’t. Aside from technical issues, we also have budget problems. The reconfiguration will take a lot of money,” he said.
In response to the news, fishermen in 22 seaside provinces earlier this month threatened to stop fishing.
“The permanent secretary for Labour Ministry now assures us that there is no plan to ratify the convention anytime soon,” Mongkhon said.
More than 16,000 fishing vessels are affiliated with his association.
With the industry trying hard to recruit 53,000 new workers, Mongkhon’s association is pushing the government to let them hire illegal migrants and register them in a bid to ease the labour shortage.
Labour Minister Pol General Adul Sangsingkeo, however, has said that only some 11,000 workers would be allowed to renew their work permits between August 20 and September 30 provided they express their intention to continue working in the industry.
“We will then try to fill vacant positions by importing workers through our memoranda of understanding with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,” he said.
Sompong Srakaew of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) said neighbouring countries were usually cautious about sending |their workers to Thailand for jobs on fishing vessels.
“They are worried about their welfare,” he said.
Sompong explained that Thailand’s fishing industry would not face a labour shortage if good working conditions were provided.
Even though some MoUs have been signed for the fishing industry, migrant workers usually opt to work in other fields due to better working conditions. Sompong said he had heard many stories about exploitation in the fishing industry.
“Many workers feel they are underpaid,” he said.
According to LPN, fishing-vessel workers earned just Bt5,000 per month in 2011 and rarely got the 1 per cent commission per catch that was promised. Even more worrying were findings that fishing-vessel captains often paid guards to attack those who disobey their orders and even abandoned some disobedient workers on small islets as punishment.
Thai Sea Watch Association’s president Bunjong Nasae also said there were cases of serious human-rights violations on fishing vessels.
“It is widely known that some workers were made to work like slaves,” he said, adding that the ratification of the C188 would be good, as it would help solve problems in the industry.
“I think only big operators are against the ratification as they might be worried about losing their benefits if stricter measures are taken to prevent the exploitation of workers. They have been exploiting workers for too long,” Bunjong said.
He added that the ratification would not really affect small operators, because they usually worked with members of their family and did not venture too far from the shore.
The C188 is in line with the Labour Protection and Welfare Department’s move to ensure that jobs on fishing vessels are good.
Sompong said that though he agreed with the ratification of the C188, he believed the government might have to pursue it on a step-by-step basis.
“Tension is running high because fishing operators have faced huge pressure in recent years. They have been pushed to comply with several rules over the past few years as the authorities have been seriously cracking down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” he said.
He added that over time, fishing operators should be able to make adjustments. Sompong also said that the LPN was ready to help if the government was going to invoke Article 83 of the Fisheries Act in order to provide one-stop registration services for workers seeking fishing jobs.