Migrant workers in the fishing and seafood processing industry in Thailand continue to face major decent work deficits, despite the major reforms government has introduced, according to Benjamin Harkins, Technical Officer (Ship to Shore Rights South-East Asia), International Labour Organisation.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), decent work is that which “is productive and delivers a fair income; provides security in the workplace and social protection for families; and offers better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom to express concerns, opportunities to organize and participate in decision-making, and equal opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”
Haskins said, during the panel discussion held in conjunction with the “Migrants’ Labour and Lives in Thailand’s Blue Economy” photo exhibition in Bangkok, the issues include contract substitution, retention of identification documents, debt bondage, excessive working hours, wage theft, violence, harassment and cases of forced labor. Serious injuries, accidents and even deaths remain common occurrences in the fishing sector, while the provision of a safe working and living environment on board vessels remains inadequate.
The photo exhibition on migrants’ labour by John Hulme depicts the lives of Cambodian and Myanmar migrant workers in the fishing and seafood processing sectors.
Hulme’s work has been used by the ILO in numerous research publications on migration over the years.
During the panel discussion, Hulme highlighted the issue of child labour within the fishing industry. He said that there has been a significant decrease in child labour in recent years, thanks to the Thai government’s legal framework, which prohibits children under the age of 18 from working on fishing vessels. Responsible vessel owners are diligent in checking all necessary documents during the recruitment process, to ensure that children are not being recruited.
Hulme emphasised that it is a key strategy to focus on women, not only on fishing vessels but also in the broader seafood process and supply chain in Southeast Asia. Despite this, both sectors remain heavily segregated by gender, with men being predominantly present on fishing vessels while women dominate in the seafood processing industry.
This segregation indicates the poor working conditions and often discriminatory treatment of women, who are also vulnerable to violence and harassment. The pressure to maintain high productivity levels in seafood processing factories is known to exacerbate these issues, with supervisors often resorting to various forms of violence and harassment against female workers.
Hulme said that the central concern in their efforts is to provide maternity protection to female migrants working in the food processing sector, where they continue to face unlawful termination upon becoming pregnant. Furthermore, pregnancy testing is conducted during recruitment and women who are pregnant will be ineligible for employment.
Despite the reform
During the panel discussion, Harkins spoke about the fishing and seafood processing industry, which has come under intense scrutiny due to reports of severe labour rights violations. He noted that, in April 2015, the European Commission issued a yellow card warning to Thailand for its illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices, acknowledging the link between such practices and the workplace exploitation of migrant workers.
To address these issues, Thailand has implemented various measures to strengthen its legislative framework and has increased enforcement in the sector, including ratification of the “Protocol and the Forced Labor Convention C29”, and the establishment of “port in, port” out centers across the country to inspect fishing vessels.
Despite these reforms, Harkins insisted that significant challenges remain.
Harkins cited a 2020 ILO study which showed some improvements in working conditions. Nonetheless, severe labour rights abuses persist. He stated that, during a recent field mission to the same locations where John captured his photographs of Cambodian and Myanmar migrants in Rayong, it was found that, while some employers are complying with the new regulations, many others have found new ways to exploit migrant workers.
Illegal pay practices are still prevalent, with migrant workers often being required to sign a 1-2 year contract that provides them with a meager monthly wage of only 5,000-6,000 baht. They are not given the full wages they are entitled to until the completion of the entire contract period, making it difficult for them to leave their employment until they are fully paid, as required under Thai law.
One of the panelists, Phenpiccha Jankomol of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, shared a case where a worker reached out to them for assistance in escaping from their abusive employer, who had confiscated their personal documents and physically harmed them.
If these workers leave their workplace without proper documentation, they risk being considered illegal and face legal consequences under Thai Law and other regulations related to forced labour. Therefore, it is crucial for migrant workers always to have access to their personal documents, which is a policy which the organisation strongly supports.
To sum up, it’s not enough simply to change policies in the Thai fishing and seafood processing sectors; a shift in mindset is necessary. As Thailand’s population ages, the country will rely increasingly on migrant workers to address labour shortages. Consequently, employers must prioritise the retention of these workers and offer improved working conditions, instead of exploiting them through coercion and insecurity.
It is hoped that, within a decade, Hulme will be able to create a photo exhibition that portrays an industry which not only meets legal standards for decent work for migrant workers but also implements such standards in practice.
By Truong Khanh Thi Nguyen