BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An initiative to stamp out human trafficking, child labour and forced labour in Thailand's multibillion-dollar seafood industry lacks teeth and will do little to end the problem in the Southeast Asian country, rights activists say.
Under the "Good Labour Practices" programme, launched in the Thai capital Bangkok last week, government officials and businesses are meant to work together to ensure international labour standards are met in the industry employing up to 2 million people.
Gross human rights abuses have long tarnished the Thai seafood sector with campaigners documenting many cases of violence and the use of underage workers. Earlier this month, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that one in 10 fishermen were being beaten severely at sea, and many others were going unpaid.
"To date, these violations are systemic - they are part of the labour policies that make these industries function and that make them so profitable," said Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, noting that the abuses he documented "sound like they come out of a medieval dungeon".
Robertson criticised the new initiative as "a cynical charade because there is no effective implementation mechanism with teeth for non-compliance". He also said there were no clear penalties for not complying with labour standards.
"Sadly, this is more of the traditional Thai practice of 'pak chee roi na' - putting a sprig of coriander on top of a food dish that is not so tasty to try and make it look better," he said in comments emailed to Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The production of shrimp here has been classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as an item produced by both child and forced labour since 2009, while fish from Thailand was added to the 2012 list for the use of forced labour.
"When we did our research, we found multiple problems with child labour at multiple factories," said Nick Rudikoff, a global affairs coordinator for Change to Win, a Washington DC-based labour union coalition.
Rudikoff, an author of a briefing paper about violations at the factory of a former Wal-mart supplier, Narong Seafood, said relying on the industry to regulate itself would not guarantee workers' rights.
"Without workers at the table, their auditing regimes are really nothing but a whitewash because they haven't been shown to identify problems because it's in nobody's interest to find those problems," Rudikoff told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
"Our main point is that the industry is not just driven by Thai producers, but by Western retailers like Wal-mart who buy the vast majority of these goods. They need to be a part of this solution as well," he said.
"In order to fix the problems in the Thai seafood industry, it will take a collaborative effort between Western buyers, the Thai seafood industry, and grassroots workers' organisations and NGOs. Without all those ingredients, these problems won't be solved."
Thai industry and government officials said their participation in the initiative was proof that they took reports of rights violations seriously.
"We are happy to join this Department of Labour and Fisheries Department GLP (Good Labour Practices) programme because no matter what we have said in the past, the media would not believe us," Thai Frozen Foods Association President Poj Aramwattananont said.
I wouldn't dare to say that 100 percent of (frozen food processors) are in the right. There may be some businessmen here and there who are unknowingly not in the right, or who may not know they are doing something wrong," he said. "The minority who are not in the right should go and fix it so it is right."