KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Asian countries have been urged to sign up to international standards on working conditions in the fishing industry after Thailand became the first in the region to make such a pledge.
Fishing is largely unregulated in Asia and an analysis by the Global Slavery Index has identified workers in the industries of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand as being at high risk of modern slavery.
Thailand on Wednesday (Jan 30) ratified the International Labour Organisation's Work in Fishing Convention, which sets out binding rules and standards for conditions on fishing vessels.
"Thailand is setting an excellent example for the region... I look forward to other Asian countries soon following suit,"the director-general of the United Nations agency, Mr Guy Ryder, said in a statement.
In recent years, Thailand's multi-billion dollar seafood industry has come under scrutiny for slavery, trafficking and violence on fishing boats and at onshore processing facilities.
Earlier this month, the European Union (EU) withdrew its threat to ban Thai fishing imports, and said that the country had made progress in tackling illegal and unregulated fishing.
After the EU threatened to ban fish exports and the US State Department said it was failing to tackle human trafficking, Bangkok toughened up its laws and increased fines for violations.
Thailand has introduced modern technologies - from satellites to optical scanning and electronic payment services - to crack down on abuses.
The ILO convention ratified by Thailand includes requirements relating to occupational safety and health, medical care at sea and ashore, rest periods, written work agreements and social security protection.
It aims to ensure that fishing vessels provide decent living conditions for workers on board.
Ratifying the convention showed the government's strong political will to ensure that working conditions in its domestic fishing industry meet ILO standards, Thai Labour Minister Adul Sangsingkeo said in a statement.
It underlines Thailand's full commitment to raising the standards of labour protection for both Thai and migrant workers and eliminating forced labour, he added.
Human rights groups welcomed Thailand's move, but urged policymakers to entrench the ILO convention in domestic law.
Mr Phil Robertson, an Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that while Thailand deserved kudos for ratifying the convention, the implementing legislation still needed to be developed and passed.
"We've seen influential Thai fishing fleet owners fight tooth and nail against this convention from the start," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by e-mail.
"So we're expecting a serious fight to get a law that results in meaningful rights protections and improvements in fishermen's lives."
The commercial fishing and seafood industry contributes around US$6 billion (S$8.07 billion) to Thai exports, according to the ILO, with Thailand being among the top global exporters of seafood products.
The fishing and seafood processing sectors together employed more than 600,000 workers in 2017, with about half of those registered migrant workers.