By Zoe Tabary
LONDON, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than a third of migrant fishermen in Thailand clearly were victims of trafficking over the past five years and even more workers in the industry were possibly trafficked as well, according to a report published on Thursday.
Routinely underpaid and physically abused, three-quarters of migrants working on Thai fishing vessels have been in debt bondage, working to pay off an obligation, said the study by the anti-trafficking group International Justice Mission (IJM).
Thailand's multibillion-dollar seafood sector came under fire in recent years after investigations showed widespread slavery, trafficking and violence on fishing boats and in onshore food processing factories.
The politically unstable country, which is under military rule, has vowed to crack down on trafficking and recently introduced reforms to its fisheries law.
The IJM study of 260 fishermen from Myanmar and Cambodia found 38 percent were clearly trafficked and another 49 percent possibly trafficked.
Only 13 percent reported fair labor conditions at sea and no exploitative recruitment, it said.
Three-quarters reported working at least 16 hours a day, and only 11 percent said they were paid more than 9,000 Baht ($272 U.S.) per month, the legal monthly minimum wage in Thailand.
One fisherman was quoted in the report as saying he was held in debt bondage, owing 20,000 Baht ($604) to his brother, who worked as a supervisor overseeing fishermen.
"I fear for my life as he has killed in front of me before," he was quoted as saying. "I don't dare to run. He would kill my children.
Field researchers surveyed the 260 fishermen in 20 Thai fishing localities in 2016, collecting information on fishing jobs they had held in the previous five years.
Thailand, the world's third-largest seafood exporter, had more than 42,000 active fishing vessels as of 2014 and more than 172,000 people were employed as fishermen, the study said.
The study was funded by the Walmart Foundation, the charitable arm of giant U.S. retailer Wal-mart Stores Inc .
With release of the study, the Walmart Foundation announced a grant to help the IJM improve law enforcement efforts against human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry. Neither Walmart nor the charity would specify the value of the grant.
Walmart spokeswoman Marilee McInnis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email that "combating forced labour remains a key challenge throughout the world.
"Regardless of where it occurs in the global supply chain, Walmart is committed to help eliminate forced labour through transparency and collaboration," she wrote.
Gary Haugen, the chief executive of IJM, said in a statement that "no person should have to live under the oppression or ownership of another.
"As consumers, we shouldn't have to wonder if the products we're purchasing are the result of violent injustice," he said.
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, additional reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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