By The Nation
The European Union’s withdrawal of a threat to ban Thai seafood imports is the welcome reward Thailand earned after pushing through a series of reforms to curb illegal fishing practices.
The threat hung over our fisheries industry for three years, but now the so-called “yellow card” – a football reference known all too well here – has been withdrawn. EU fisheries commissioner Karmenu Vella told the press after meeting Deputy Prime Minister Chatchai Sarikulya on Tuesday that combating illegal fishing remains a high priority for the EU. He said Thailand had now become “a new committed partner in this fight”.
Thailand has long taken pride in its status as the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood products, but it was only recently that we acknowledged the ranking was achieved through overfishing and cruel reliance on low-paid and trafficked labour from neighbouring countries. Profits and a reputation for meeting global demand should never come via slavery or slave-like working conditions or without conscientious regulation.
The EU decision effectively halted a process that could have led to a complete ban on imports of Thai fisheries products to most European nations. As soon as the yellow card was issued in April 2015, the EU and Thailand began cooperating constructively to resolve the issues. Thai authorities deserve praise for owning up to the problem and working hard to end it.
It is of course unfortunate that it took the threat of an embargo from a foreign regional bloc to get them to act on a severe problem that everyone knew existed. Clearly our moral compass was pointing in the wrong direction before the threat of losing European investment acted as a magnet to reverse the needle.
The Thai government voted last month to ratify Convention 188 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which sets standards of decency for employment in the fishing industry. Thailand became the first Asian country to do so. The legal framework applied to the fisheries industry was amended so it’s in line with international law, allowing for monitoring and surveillance.
Thailand must not now become complacent. The challenge henceforth is not just to adhere to international best practices but to continue improving working conditions in a manner that’s fair to private firms but especially to their 600,000 labourers, most of whom come from Cambodia and Myanmar, as well as protecting the environment from further damage.
“Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing damages global fish stocks,” Vella said, “but it also hurts the people living from the sea, especially those already vulnerable to poverty.” We must thus look beyond regulation and be aware of the human cost of this multibillion-dollar industry. Future accusations of slavery, poor working conditions, human trafficking and violence aboard fishing vessels and at onshore processing facilities must be investigated in a straightforward manner.
The ILO claimed last year that workers in the Thai industry remained at risk of forced labour and sometimes were denied their wages. Steve Trent of the advocacy group Environmental Justice Foundation just recently told Reuters there were still “concerns about the workers. We need to see that the reforms are durable.” Thailand has yet to ratify ILO conventions on the rights to organise and to collective bargaining, both essential to protecting workers.
Clearly there is still some distance to cover as the industry evolves. We can be economically wealthy without being morally bankrupt.