Thais claim success in cleaning up fishing sector

Migrant workers sorting fish at Mahachai seafood market, south of Bangkok. Foreign workers in Thailand's seafood industry are mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia and many do not have work permits.
Migrant workers sorting fish at Mahachai seafood market, south of Bangkok. Foreign workers in Thailand's seafood industry are mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia and many do not have work permits. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Officials say boats inspected, migrant workers registered as part of crackdown demanded by EU

Thailand has made significant progress in cracking down on a fishing and seafood industry rife with illegal practices including slavery, officials insist ahead of a crucial evaluation by the Euro- pean Union (EU).

Unhampered by the competing priorities that have beset previous civilian governments, Thailand's military regime has in the past year rammed through wide-ranging legislation targeted at cleaning up the country's bloated and largely free-for-all fishing industry.

The catalyst was a "yellow card" from the EU - the world's largest fish importer - last April, signalling that an import ban would follow if the kingdom failed to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and to eliminate slave labour on fishing boats and in seafood processing.

At stake is not just Thailand's reputation, which has been badly damaged by recent exposes on the long-running practice of slave labour in an industry that employs up to 200,000 migrant workers. There is also the potential loss of up to US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) worth of annual seafood exports to the EU.

The foreign labour is mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia and many are without work permits, rendering them illegal and vulnerable to exploitation as they slog for long hours on boats on the high seas at the mercy of ruthless supervisors.

The conclusion of the EU evaluation team that visited Thailand in late January is expected within weeks, and Thai officials are optimistic that the yellow card will be lifted or at least not be replaced by a red card - a ban. According to diplomatic sources who spoke to The Straits Times, the EU will most likely maintain the yellow card to keep up the pressure.

Meanwhile, in a push for recognition of its efforts, officials from Thailand's ministries of labour and foreign affairs, department of fisheries and the navy on Thursday handed out to a small group of foreign journalists at a hosted lunch a 26-page report and CDs detailing enforcement actions taken under the new laws.

Around 95 per cent of some 36,000 vessels have been inspected, and tens of thousands of illegal migrant workers registered, the officials claimed. A government buyback scheme aims to decommission about 1,000 vessels.

More than 100 underage migrant workers have been removed from shrimp peeling sheds and placed in other less onerous work. The minimum age for employment in the industry is 18. "We have all the tools to enforce the ban on underage workers," said the director- general of the fisheries department, Mr Wimon Jantarotai.

But the government must also balance regulation with the welfare of fishing communities, the officials said. The bulk of the fleet - some 20,000 vessels of less than 10 tonnes - is engaged in traditional small-scale fishing. Compensation schemes are in place for those hit by the new regulations.

Some 5,250 larger vessels had satellite-based vessel monitoring systems (VMS) installed. According to the rules of engagement listed in the 26-page document, switching off the VMS for a few hours will generate an alert.

The government has also set up centres in 22 coastal provinces to conduct checks on the vessels.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Thais claim success in cleaning up fishing sector'. Print Edition | Subscribe