BANGKOK, Thailand — The Freedom Fund, a private donor fund, has launched a $5 million, three-year program to educate and train workers in the Thai seafood industry. This, in conjunction with more transparency and government regulation, should work to reduce exploitation of labor.
The Freedom Fund’s program focuses on empowering impoverished persons susceptible to exploitation by corporations in the Thai seafood industry. Through jobs training, education and community organization, people can be more aware of their rights and gain skills that should augment their wages. The on-the-ground approach will be supplemented by improved government regulatory framework emphasizing an increased number of inspections and more prosecutions for those committing exploitation of labor.
The seafood industry, due to its lack of transparency and its difficulty in maintaining transnational regulation, has a reputation for workers’ rights abuses. Poor wages, little access to safe working conditions, use of undocumented workers and an inability to organize plague fishermen in southeast Asia. 90 percent of the labor used in the Thai seafood industry is completed by migrant workers, which creates further issues regarding documentation and remuneration. These workers are often Laotian, Cambodian and Burmese migrants. As a result of the recent Rohingya migrant crisis, many Rohingya migrants were kept in jungle camps and sold as slaves to Thai fishing vessels for approximately $900 per person.
Some of the trafficking in these jungle camps was done with the complicity of Thai state officials, showing the power of the profits of the Thai seafood industry. The industry is worth $7.3 billion per year, and most of it is exported. 40 percent of exports go to the U.S. and the E.U. In April, the E.U. threatened a trade ban for Thai seafood if Thailand didn’t improve workers’ rights and transparency in the fishing industry. This ban would cost Thailand $1 billion annually.
The potential ban from the E.U. would be up for debate in November, so the Freedom Fund’s initiative has perfect timing. Presently, the government’s attempts to reform the industry have had little success; corporations consider it too expensive. With the Freedom Fund’s assistance, grassroots organizations are more able to provide education and support to workers. Furthermore, the initiative will be evaluated, which will help guide future initiatives regarding industry reform. The Freedom Fund aims to gather data directly from migrant workers while collaborating with policy makers and CEOs to approach the issue from all angles.
Hopefully, this initiative can give the support and empowerment to workers in the Thai seafood industry through training them and ensuring that they receive fair wages. While corporations may consider the reforms costly at first, the impact of a possible trade ban with the E.U. and other international markets will be far more costly in the long run than paying workers a proper wage so that they can support themselves and their families.