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Poor enforcement of labour law still harming fishing industry

Feb 04. 2018
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INSUFFICIENT law enforcement remains a challenge in the Thai government’s efforts to combat the illegal fishery industry, which includes the practices of forced labour and human trafficking, according to a United States official.

Marcia Eugenio, director of the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking under the US Labor Department, acknowledged efforts by the Thai government, but said there were complications.

File photo: Marcia Eugenio

“Some laws might be complicated, for instance, as to who has the responsibility to monitor enforcement,” she said. “There are also issues related to recruitment and access to resources. [Workers] tend to end up being exploited if they don’t have enough resources, including social services and social protections.”

Human trafficking in Thailand, notably in the fisheries sector, has been watched closely since the country was issued a “yellow card” for illegal fishing by the European Union. Thailand also remained on the Tier 2 WatchList of the US Trafficking in Persons report last year.

Eugenio noted that the Thai government was also chastised in a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on rights abuses and forced labour in fishing.

While regulatory controls on improving conditions of work at sea have been made stronger, the HRW report blamed poor implementation and enforcement that “has perpetuated a culture of abuse and impunity”.

Its research indicated practices such as retention of identity documents, wage withholding and recruitment linked to debt, forcing workers to work very long hours and end up in slave-like conditions.

The HRW report also blamed the Thai government for delaying the implementation of articles in the new labour law, which will harshly punish employers of unregistered workers.

“In the absence of strict enforcement measures to compel brokers to obtain formal licences or employers to use only licensed brokers, it seems unlikely that this legislation will disrupt the deeply entrenched informal systems driving recruitment in the fishing industry,” the report reads.

HRW has called on the US, one of Thailand’s main seafood export destinations, to urge the Thai government to pass such laws as well as investigate and prosecute government officials who may enable forced labour and trafficking.

In 2016, processed fish and crustaceans sent from Thailand to the US accounted for 27 per cent (US$623 million or Bt19.6 billion) and 22 per cent ($517 million) of the market respectively.

The HRW received a prompt response from the Thai Foreign Ministry, which cited various legal moves, including the implementation of the 2015 fisheries laws imposing higher fines, resulting in severe punishments that have led to a curb in human trafficking.

During past two years, the ministry claimed, more than 4,249 cases had been brought before criminal courts, 85 of which were prosecutions for human-trafficking crimes. More than 50 defendants were punished with the maximum jail term of 14 years and fined the maximum of Bt2.5 million.

A law governing recruitment agencies was also issued, resulting in the prohibition of debt bondage and the licensing of more than 100 agencies.

Eugenio acknowledged that the Thai government had gradually engaged more with the US and the EU, which closely monitors Thailand’s fisheries situation, by taking a greater leading role, passing legislation to provide additional protections to labourers and gearing more towards the private sector.

“Still, it can be a bit hard to control since many of the cases happen at sea. There is more that could be done,” she said.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesperson Budsadee Santipitaks said the Thai government had allocated more than Bt3.6 billion in the 2018 fiscal year to fight human trafficking and measures to speed up the legal procedure to prosecute human traffickers.

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