BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new survey has found widespread forced and child labour in Thailand’s multibillion-dollar fishing industry, with one in 10 fishermen being beaten severely at sea, many going unpaid, and in one extreme case, a 12-year-old Cambodian boy who said he toiled 20 hours a day.
The U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) report - the largest survey to date of working conditions in the Thai fishing industry - was based on interviews with 596 fishermen, more than 90 percent of them Burmese or Cambodian. Only one of these had a valid work permit, while more than half those surveyed had no documents at all.
“The vast majority of workers were an irregular status and thus more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Max Tunon, senior programme officer with the ILO. “There are a significant proportion who are working against their will and don’t have the freedom to leave.”
The survey found that 16.9 percent of those questioned were working against their will and unable to leave because of the threat of penalties, and 17.3 percent had been threatened with violence by their employer, captain, supervisor or co-worker.
Twenty-four said they had been sold or transferred to another boat against their will, and 33 were under the age of 18, including seven who were under 15. Of those interviewed, 103 had been threatened with violence, and 60 had been “severely beaten”.
“This is one of the main means through which fishers are forced to work in the sector - the threat of violence - and here it shows that that threat is very real,” Tunon said.
SLAVES AT SEA
With an annual catch of 1.8 million tonnes in 2010, Thailand exports $7.13 billion of fish annually, and the sector employs an estimated 2 million workers, the report said.
Attempts to cut labour costs have led to the large-scale employment of migrant workers, “in some cases using deceptive and coercive labour practices,” it said.
The report cited National Fisheries Association of Thailand estimates of 142,845 fishermen employed on 9,523 boats, and an industry shortage of 50,000 workers.
The survey did not set out to talk to foreigners or migrants, but “…the preponderance of migrant workers in the sample … demonstrates the extent to which the Thai fishing industry relies on foreign migrant labour, with Thai workers making up less than 5 percent of the workers surveyed in three of the sample provinces," the study said. Overall, 51.3 percent of those surveyed were Burmese and 40.4 percent Cambodian.
One group of seven men, from Banteay Meanchey province in Cambodia, met a broker at the Thai border who offered them construction jobs. They were told that the boat they boarded would be used to haul cement, but they had in fact been sold for 25,000 baht ($800) each and spent more than two years working on a fishing vessel, where they endured increasingly severe physical abuse and verbal threats.
They managed to escape while docked in Indonesia, but their captain refused to pay their wages. After several months in an immigration detention centre, they were repatriated.
From another boat with 23 Cambodians and four Thais, a 28-year-old Cambodian man said he worked 8 to 24 hours a day, with no days off. His boat was seized in August 2012 by authorities in Mauritius, and after seven months he and other workers were repatriated to Phnom Penh, but he was never paid for the 2-1/2 years he worked on the Thai fishing vessel.
The youngest fishermen surveyed were 12 and 14. The 14-year-old had tried to escape once because he was homesick, but said he could not leave because of the threat of violence. Three children interviewed said they were forced to work on the boat by their parents.
NOWHERE TO TURN
Despite these abuses, only 31 of those surveyed (5.1 percent) complained, most of them to their employers or NGOs. Three – all Thai nationals - lodged complaints with authorities, Tunon said.
The report said 84 fishermen did not complain because they did not want to “cause trouble”, 10 thought complaining would not change anything, and 33 did not know where or to whom to complain.
“This shows how inaccessible complaints mechanisms are to irregular migrants and those in the fishing sector as a whole,” Tunon said. “Obviously, as irregular migrants, they are concerned about what will happen to them if they go to authorities. They are afraid of being detained or deported.”
Tunon said the government was establishing seven labour coordination centres for the fishing sector, which would be responsible for registration of vessels, crews and captains, as well as recruitment and training. They will also be the places for fishermen to submit complaints.
There also needs to be a mechanism to handle complaints from the most vulnerable fishermen - those on long-haul vessels who do not set foot on land for months or even years, said Supang Chantvanich, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Asian Research Center for Migration, which co-authored the study with the ILO.
“When those people are in the fishing boats, and when they go very far, some kind of complaints mechanism must be established so that people can contact the shore at all times,” she said, otherwise they have no protection.
Supang said they should be able to contact either their embassy or NGOs, so they can report labour violations and get help.
The report also recommends setting and enforcing standards for the maintenance of crew lists, payment, contracts and rest hours, and guidelines for labour inspections on shore and at sea.