By Nanchanok Wongsamuth
LONDON, June 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thailand's crackdown on exploitation and slavery in its multi-billion dollar fishing industry will only succeed if its neighbours step up and adopt anti-trafficking laws, said a labour rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
Thai fishing vessels are increasingly registering in nearby countries to avoid scrutiny of their treatment of migrant workers as Thailand boosts its laws on human trafficking, said local campaigner Patima Tungpuchayakul.
Unlike Thai boats, foreign vessels are not required to undergo checks by officials when they enter or leave ports in Thailand, said the activist, who featured in a 2018 documentary 'Ghost Fleet' about workers trapped in slavery in the industry.
Thailand has introduced a raft of measures - from contracts for workers to tightened and new laws - to clean up the sector since 2015, when investigations revealed widespread abuses and the European Union threatened to ban imports from the country.
"Nowadays there are many Burmese vessels unloading fish in Thailand, when three or four years ago they didn't even exist," Tungpuchayakul told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview ahead of Thailand's anti-trafficking day on June 5.
"If we [Southeast Asian countries] want to cooperate in anti-human trafficking efforts, we need to have similar laws," she said, adding that some vessels were choosing to fish further away from Thailand in order to avoid the risk of being punished.
Tungpuchayakul, 44, co-founded the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation - a Thai campaign group that helps migrant workers - and was nominated for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for her work supporting thousands of victims of human trafficking.
Thailand is home to about 610,000 modern slaves - about one in 113 of its 69 million people - according to the Global Slavery Index by the rights group Walk Free Foundation.
FEAR OF COMING FORWARD
Thailand in April amended its anti-trafficking legislation to add "forced labour or service" as an offence, and last month issued a new law to address exploitation in the fishing sector.
The country has eliminated recruitment fees paid by workers, prohibited the practice of withholding identity documents and banned the use of underage workers, but labour rights campaigners say the reforms are not adequate and abuses persist.
A study by the Environment Justice Foundation (EJF) released on Wednesday into slavery at sea found that migrant workers in Thailand are still widely abused as they do not understand their rights, and end up trapped by huge debts paid to labour brokers.
An advisor to the Department of Fisheries did not dispute the findings of the EJF report, and said that labour exploitation was possible on about 4,000 small-scale fishing boats that are not required to undergo checks by the government.
Thailand has a total of 10,500 registered commercial vessels, according to the advisor Thanaporn Sriyakul.
"For the rest, I am confident that there is no rights violation because they are checked every time they leave the port to go fishing," he said, referring to the 6,000-odd larger vessels.
He said the government planned to install GPS-like systems on smaller boats to track them - in a bid to stamp out abuses.
Yet Tungpuchayakul said labour exploitation still exists despite government checks because workers are afraid to speak out, and called for a third party to be involved in the process.
"While we have good laws, we're dealing with a problem that has existed for over 40 years, and there's also an issue with enforcement," she said.
"There should be ways for fishermen to participate [in these discussions], report instances of abuse or engage in other ... activities, rather than fishing for 16 hours a day." (Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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