By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK, March 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new order requiring bank accounts for migrant workers in Thailand's fishing and seafood industries can help end forced labour, officials said, as pressure grows from foreign buyers to tackle abuses in the multi-billion-dollar sector.
The National Fisheries Association of Thailand will in April or May begin enforcing the order requiring workers to be paid through electronic bank transfers, said Supavadee Chotikajan, of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Before it begins enforcing the order, which the labour ministry passed in November, the association will need to issue new employment contracts to migrant workers in the seafood and fishing industries, said Chotikajan.
"The policy to pay through bank accounts will ensure greater transparency and fairness to workers in the seafood and fishing industry," said Jarin Jakkaphak, a labour ministry official.
"They may be migrants, but they are entitled to equal rights as human beings," he told reporters Wednesday at the launch of an ILO report on conditions for fishermen and seafood processing workers in Thailand.
Thailand's seafood industry has come under scrutiny in recent years after investigations showed slavery, trafficking and violence on fishing boats and at onshore processing facilities.
Fishermen remain at risk of forced labour, and the wages of some continue to be withheld, despite pressure from major retailers to clean up the industry, ILO said in its report.
Deductions and delays in payments are hard to track when workers are paid in cash, said Jason Judd, an ILO programme officer in Bangkok.
"The workers did not get payslips, so they didn't know how much they were paid, how much was held back and how much they were still owed," Judd told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I've never seen a payment system so convoluted."
More than half the estimated 600,000 workers in the industries are registered migrant workers.
Nearly a fourth of workers ILO surveyed said they had experienced delayed and partial payments.
While average monthly gross wages rose to 9,980 baht ($319) before deductions from 6,483 baht in the last four years, the increase "coincided with a doubling of wage withholding - an ILO indicator of forced labour", according to the report.
The ILO and local charities are educating workers on operating bank accounts and using ATMs, Judd said.
"It's an inherently bumpy route to electronic payments."
"But it is necessary to clean up the system: it will help ensure they are paid the minimum wage, help inspectors see if there are abuses, and cut out the middleman," he said.
($1 = 31.3210 Thai baht) (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie. 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 news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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