Fishing boats docked in Samut Sakhon port near Bangkok. The Thai fishing industry has a record of abusing migrant workers. (Photo by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP)
It was in the late evening of Sept. 27 last year when Zeha Pourng set out to sea. The Cambodian migrant worker was all by himself and was given the task to attract fish with a small light boat to a fishing vessel of a Thai fishing company that cannot be named for legal reasons. Zeha had done the work before, but this evening he got caught up in a storm in the Gulf of Thailand.
What exactly happened to 28-year-old Zeha is still a mystery. Eight days after that stormy night, his boat was found near the island of Koh Samet. The fisherman's body was never found.
Zeha is just one of tens of thousands of migrant workers who come to Thailand to work in the country's billion-dollar fishing industry. Over the past few years Thailand, one of the world's biggest seafood exporters, has been heavily criticized for widespread abuses in its fishing industry that relies heavily on low-skilled workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. Following reports about human trafficking, slavery and forced labor, the EU gave Thailand a "yellow card" in 2015 and threatened to ban Thai seafood products if the country did not solve the problems.
An EU-delegation recently visited Thailand to monitor progress. While the Thai government seems certain that enough improvements have been made to lift the yellow card, labor and human rights experts point out that, even though serious progress has been made, many fishermen continue to be abused and exploited.
A recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), "Ship to Shore Rights Project," signaled forced labor and the withholding of salaries as some of the main problems. Research by the ILO also showed that only 36 percent of the fishing and seafood workers had signed a work contract and that just 66 percent of the workers receives the minimum wage.
Earlier this year the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report "Hidden Chains" pointed out that fishermen are coping with extremely long working days and are often prevented from changing employers. The human rights group also documented cases of workers being physically abused. Some fishermen claimed that they were beaten by senior crew members because they didn't work fast enough or failed to understand certain orders.
When rules go overboard
Mithouna Phakrinha worked on a fishing boat in 2015. He says that as soon as the boat was out at sea, all rules went overboard. "Often we were at sea for six days in a row. We only slept for five hours per night, sometimes just once hour. Some of us were so tired that we couldn't really work anymore. We were so exhausted that we made mistakes, for example letting fish fall out of a basket. If the manager saw that, he would get angry and beat you. Sometimes with his bare hands, sometimes with a chain. It could get very bloody."
Mithouna managed to survive and get back home, but not all are that lucky. Zeha never made it back to shore when his boat got caught up in the storm. And when his brother, who works for the same company, tried to file a complaint with the police, his employer threatened to file a complaint against Zeha for stealing a boat. The brother then decided to drop his complaint, fearing that he would otherwise lose his job.
Labor organization Solidarity Center Cambodia and the Thailand-based Human Rights Development Foundation (HRDF) are monitoring the case of Zeha's disappearance and say that the fisherman's family is entitled to compensation of 449,280 baht (US$14,400). They hope to settle the case by letting Zeha's mother file a complaint, says Wichan Thamrai, a legal officer with HRDF. "Usually labor rights-related disputes are not brought to court," says Wichan. "The procedures set forth include dispute settlement through mediation. Most cases end at the stage of mediation."
One of the main reasons that fishermen still face abuses is because they are often unaware of their rights and therefore are extremely vulnerable, researchers claim. Most workers are poor, low-skilled and uneducated. Many of them find it difficult to understand their contract.
"They don't really know what they are entitled to and how to exercise their labor rights," says Supavadee Chotikajan, a project coordinator with the ILO.
Yet some problems are relatively easy to solve, Supavadee points out. "A quick win for example would be to send out people to explain to the workers what is written in their contract," she says.
A ministerial order, signed last November, to pay fishermen through bank accounts instead of cash could also change things. It would make it easier to spot when an employer pays below the minimum wage, Supavadee says. "That way there's more transparency on how much workers are getting paid," she says. "Now most workers don't know how much is deducted from their salaries. Some of these deductions are legal, some are illegal."
Another challenge Thailand is trying to deal with is to stop fishermen from becoming victims of human trafficking. Over the past three years, Thai authorities have stepped up their fight against trafficking and people smuggling, with brokers and law-breaking employers arrested and prosecuted. Still, human trafficking remains "a pertinent issue" for migrant workers in Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
"Inadequate channels to secure decent work puts migrant workers at risk of exploitation through fraudulent recruitment agencies and brokers. Their vulnerability is then compounded by their lack of awareness of their rights," says Nathalie Hanley, IOM Thailand's program manager for counter trafficking and vulnerable population.
By fighting human trafficking and implementing new regulations and monitoring tools, which helped end some of the worst labor abuses, the Thai government is now trying to convince the EU to lift the yellow card given three years ago. Most observers however believe it's too early to do so.
Human Rights Watch's Asia director Brad Adams thinks that Thailand should first pass a standalone law that criminalizes forced labor and get serious about enforcing the labor law and protecting workers.
"Instead of grappling with these much-needed changes, the Thai government is working overtime to convince the EU to lift the yellow card and trust them to do the right thing later," Adams says. "It's an argument that ignores a Thai record of decades of abusive treatment of migrant workers, and a yawning gap between promises made and actual implementation done."