BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand is the third-largest seafood exporter in the world with a seafood market worth around $7.3 billion. A lot of seafood is originally sourced from the seas surrounding Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh on fishing boats owned predominantly by Thai captains. However, these fishing boats are consistently short about 50,000 mariners. Unfortunately, a majority of those mariners are actually modern slaves. Several organizations are working to combat Thailand’s seafood slave trade.
How the Slave Trade Exists
Thailand’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the world at under 1 percent. This means that native Thais can choose to work jobs far less grueling than those on fishing vessels. As a result, 90 percent of workers on Thai fishing boats are undocumented migrants. Around 75 percent experience low or no pay, excessive hours and debt bondage—in other words, slavery. Conditions on these boats can be brutal; 59 percent of enslaved migrants on board Thai fishing boats have personally witnessed the murder of another worker.
Thailand’s seafood slave trade is notorious for its expansiveness and for going largely unchecked by the government. There are tens of thousands of enslaved people working to catch the fish that are imported to North America. However, there are multiple individuals and organizations dedicated to fighting the slave trade. In fact, they have made significant strides in generating the policy and support systems necessary to eventually dismantle slavery in Southeast Asia.
Labor Protection Network
The Labor Protection Network (LPN) is a Thai nonprofit dedicated to rescuing trafficked migrants from the seafood slave trade and promoting greater transparency in the seafood industry to discourage human trafficking and poor labor conditions. LPN was founded by Patima Tungpuchayakal and Sompong Srakaew in 2004. Since then, the organization has rescued over 5,000 Thai and migrant workers from the seafood slave trade. LPN was also at the center of the passage of the Anti-Trafficking Act, one of Thailand’s strongest protections against human trafficking and slavery.
Most recently, LPN has produced the award-winning documentary Ghost Fleet, which highlights the experiences of survivors of slavery on fishing vessels. The film was released on June 7. The hope is that it will generate enough public outrage to convince the Thai government to pass and enforce policies that are more comprehensive and can end slavery once and for all.
Environmental Justice Foundation
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) was part of the team of investigators that initially uncovered the horrific reality of human trafficking in the Thai port of Kantang in 2013 and 2014. Their investigations were a primary motivator in the United States’ decision to place Thailand on its Tier 3 Watch List for Human Trafficking and the European Union’s decision to issue official warnings to Thailand for violating fishing regulations.
These responses from Thailand’s largest export markets have influenced the Royal Thai government’s recent legislation. It is making new attempts to stifle and regulate human trafficking. EJF is currently working alongside the Thai government to better enforce its current policy and formulate new, more comprehensive anti-trafficking and labor laws.
Positive Advances in Policy
While there is certainly a long way to go to free the Thai seas, the government has made significant progress in regulating fishing boats and attempting to stifle human trafficking on the waters. Thailand has begun monitoring every boat entering or leaving its ports to ensure that everyone on board is in possession of a work permit. Additionally, they have begun placing tracking devices on boats to prevent them from leaving Thai waters and falling outside of the government’s jurisdiction. Previously, Thai fishing vessels had routinely fished in Indonesian waters.
In April, Thailand added forced labor to the Anti-Trafficking Act, making it explicitly illegal for the first time. As a testament to real improvements in Thai anti-trafficking policy, the United States State Department has moved Thailand from a Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch, meaning while they still do not meet international anti-trafficking standards, they are working to fix that.
Largely motivated by the efforts of organizations and survivors alike, the Thai government is taking positive steps to stop the seafood slave trade. While Thailand certainly still has a long way to go to eradicate trafficking of migrant workers in the South China Sea, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
– Macklyn Hutchison