Thailand registers 70,000 previously undocumented foreign workers in fishing sector

Marine policemen inspecting the papers of migrant workers on a fishing boat in Mahachai, in Thailand's Samut Sakhon province, on Jan 28, 2016.
Marine policemen inspecting the papers of migrant workers on a fishing boat in Mahachai, in Thailand's Samut Sakhon province, on Jan 28, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai authorities have registered more than 70,000 previously undocumented foreign workers in its fishing industry, navy officials said on Thursday (Feb 11), part of a bid by the junta to stave off a potentially ruinous ban on its seafood exports.

In a briefing with foreign journalists on Thursday, navy, fisheries and labour officials insisted the clampdown on illegal practices was yielding results.

"It's a national agenda, and the Thai prime minister has stressed that he has zero tolerance on this issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee said.

The junta says documenting foreign workers, many of whom illegally enter Thailand from Myanmar and Cambodia and are easily exploited, will help end the cycle of abuse.

Of an estimated 200,000 undocumented foreigners working in the industry, 70,000 had now been registered, said Commander Piyanan Kawmanee, assistant spokesman of a Navy-led taskforce heading up the crackdown.

"Around 50,000 were working in (fish) processing plants, the rest on fishing vessels," he said.

Those who had been documented would be allowed to continue working for at least two years, officials said.

More than 8,000 fishing vessels have also had their registrations revoked in the last year, they added.

Thailand is under intense pressure to overhaul its lucrative fishing sector.

Last year, the European Union hit the country with a "yellow card" warning, threatening to ban all seafood exports unless the military government tackled rampant illegal fishing and labour abuses among its fleets.

European Union officials visited the kingdom last month for an inspection to decide whether a ban goes ahead, a move that could cost Thailand up to US$1 billion in lost revenue.

Thailand is the world's third-largest exporter of seafood - a status that rights groups say is achieved through illegal overfishing and a reliance on low-paid trafficked workers from neighbouring countries.

The junta government of General Prayut Chan-O-Cha has struggled to revive the kingdom's slumping economy and is desperate to avoid any costly sanctions on the vital sector.

The military says successive civilian Thai governments failed to tackle systemic problems within key industries like fishing and aviation - another sector that is facing the threat of international regulatory sanctions.

"During civilian administrations... sometimes we couldn't enforce efficiently," said Vice-Admiral Jumpol Lumpiganon, who added that the EU's yellow card warning and the junta's rise to power had become a "catalyst" to push reforms.

Critics say the military's repeated interventions in politics over the last decade hobbled any civilian government's chances of instituting long term reforms.

Officials said they did not know when the EU would make its decision but they were hopeful Thailand could avoid any sanctions.

"We are confident that thanks to the laws and regulations passed last year we have the tools to ensure that no underage or forced labour will occur in our processing factories as well as fishing vessels," said Mr Arrug Phrommanee, director-general of the Ministry of Labour.