Putting a number to abusive practices in Thai fishing industry

Fishing boat workers unloading their catch in Ranong, Thailand, in a still image taken from video. The isolation, relentless pace and harsh conditions on such boats have led many to shun such work, creating demand for forced labour. -- PHOTO: SPH
Fishing boat workers unloading their catch in Ranong, Thailand, in a still image taken from video. The isolation, relentless pace and harsh conditions on such boats have led many to shun such work, creating demand for forced labour. -- PHOTO: SPH

IT SOUNDED like a good offer: Earn 6,000 baht (S$238.40) a month working in a fish canning factory in Bangkok.

But for Mr Sompong (not his real name), who responded to that offer recently from a fellow ethnic Mon from Myanmar, it turned out too good to be true.

The 34-year-old man was forced to work on a Thai fishing boat, and witnessed co-workers brutally beaten if they tried to escape.

Food, drinking water and medical aid were scarce. The workers were reduced to boiling ice used to freeze fish in order to stay hydrated. Once, Mr Sompong had to cut off a part of his little finger after it got tangled. With no first-aid kit in sight, the wound was not treated.

Mr Sompong was not the first victim of forced labour in Thailand’s seafood industry, with exports of fish exceeding US$7 billion (S$8.9 billion) per year.

Gruelling conditions on fishing boats have created a shortage of about 50,000 workers in the industry which employs more than 140,000 people.

This in turn has fed demand for trafficked labour from neighbouring countries.

Horror stories similar to his have been circulated by international aid agencies in recent years, though all had been unable to put a finger on the actual size of the problem.

On Monday, the International Labour Organisation and the Asian Research Centre on Migration at Chulalongkorn University attempted just that when they released the results of the largest survey ever done on working conditions in the Thai fishing industry.

Through interviews last year with a non-representative sample of 596 fishing boat workers in key coastal provinces of Rayong, Ranong, Samut Sakhon and Songkhla, it found out this much: Five per cent said they had been deceived about the nature of the work while 10 per cent said they had been severely beaten on board.

Seventeen per cent said they were working against their will.

Those who had been forced to work through the threat of non-financial penalties such as being threatened with physical violence were made to work longer hours: An average of 18.33 hours a day, compared with the 13.11 hours for those who worked willingly.

Some of the information did not come as a surprise, like the fact there were more people working against their will on boats which stayed longer out at sea, where isolation made it hard to seek help.

Also, the vast majority of workers did not sign any employment contract, which is typical of the largely unregulated fishing trade.

And there were positive indicators: Eighty-nine per cent said they had enough food and water, while nearly three quarters said they had sufficient rest.

The mean monthly wage was 6,483 baht, with deduction sometimes made for food, water, accommodation or leave.

But there were also disturbing finds:  There were 33 children under the age of 18 working on these boats, and the young workers did not seem to be aware that Thai law allowed those under the age of 16 years in such work only if they were accompanied by a parent or guardian or had the written consent of a parent or guardian.

To be fair, Thailand is not the only country grappling with abuses in its fishing industry. In a press conference on Monday, the ILO’s senior programme officer Max Tunon said this was a global problem, and that it was difficult to say how conditions in Thailand’s fishing industry compared with those of other countries, given the lack of a similar sized study.

Nevertheless, the report stressed the results “give important indications about the existence of deceptive and coercive recruitment practices, poor working conditions, unfair employment practices and forced and child labour”.

tanhy@sph.com.sg