Thailand’s $7 billion fishing trade is among the world’s biggest. In recent years, it’s also been one of the most severely scandalized — an industry blighted by reports of slavery on fishing trawlers. Many of these tales recall 18th century-style barbarity at sea.
Each year, Thailand’s docks have traditionally launched thousands of trawlers into the ocean, often with crews of roughly 20 men. Most are not complicit in forced labor. But less scrupulous captains have taken advantage of the ocean’s lawlessness.
In port cities, they’ve bought men from Myanmar and Cambodia for $600 to $1,000 per head. Duped by traffickers, the migrants come to Thailand seeking under-the-table work in factories or farms.
Instead, they’ve found themselves hustled onto fishing boats that motor into the abyss, thousands of miles from civilization, where they are forced to fish for no pay. Various investigations have uncovered thousands of cases.
As one deputy boat captain of a Thai trawler told GlobalPost: “Once a captain is tired of a [captive], he’s sold to another captain for profit. A guy can be out there for 10 years just getting sold over and over.”
But Thailand is now installing a new system that — if effective — could seriously reform an industry that has been murky for far too long.
“We’re trying to change as fast as possible,” says Adisorn Promthep, director general of Thailand’s Department of Fisheries. “We want to make sure no vessel escapes our scope.”
Installed last year by Thailand’s military government, Adisorn is charged with bringing transparency to a business marked by opacity.
For years, fish have been routed through a dark supply chain that obscures their origins. This has given exporters plausible deniability with regard to forced labor.
Practically everyone has acknowledged the accounts of escaped or freed slaves, who have come ashore reporting tales of murder and beatings aboard trawlers. But there has been genuinely no way of proving whether this pound of mackerel or that box of fish sticks was sourced from a captive.
This is not a concern limited to Asia. It has serious implications for shoppers in the United States and European Union, two primary importers of seafood from Thailand.
Recent investigations by Greenpeace have implicated Nestlé Purina and The J.M. Smucker Company — producers of Fancy Feast and Meow Mix cat food, respectively — in sourcing fish from factories accused of forced labor violations. Other reports have shown Costco and Walmart entangled in tainted supply chains — allegations that led both to join a “Seafood Task Force” to clean up criminality in the seafood industry.
Here are some key elements of the Thai government’s new plan, which is designed to reduce overfishing as well as root out forced labor.
Obscuring the origins of fish caught on dodgy vessels has traditionally proved rather easy. The fish is often offloaded to a massive “mothership,” a sort of way station and marketplace floating on distant seas, hundreds of thousands of miles from Thai shores. There, slave-caught fish gets mixed in with legit catches.
But under new rules, Adisorn says, every batch of fish will be recorded in an extensive digital log book. Once fully operational, this will illuminate the entire supply chain so that “any factory, any consumer, should be able to check where the fish actually came from.”
Thai authorities have actually banned offloading fish from trawlers to motherships for the time being. This applies to any boat officially flying the Thai flag — and is designed, in part, to stop captains from buying and selling captives on motherships.
There is a caveat: These “transshipments” may be allowed if monitored by onboard observers. These observers are paid roughly $120 per day — an incredible salary, considering Thailand’s daily minimum wage hovers around $10. These observers are technically freelancers. But they will be trained by Thailand’s fisheries department. Their main job is to collect data on the supply of fish in parts of the ocean prone to overfishing.
But the Thai government also expects them to “deter illegal labor practices on board.” Only a few dozen have been trained for deployment so far.
Every boat that can carry 60 tons or more will be outfitted with a GPS-style monitoring system that is “just like the navigator in your car,” Adisorn says.
Captains used to file paper documents about their whereabouts. “That’s no longer good enough,” Adisorn says. “We need to know where they’re located. At all times.”
Moreover, most of the boats now undergo rigorous inspections at newly installed “control centers” every single time they leave or return to port. Thai officers won’t just check equipment and inspect nets full of wriggling fish. They’re also supposed to check that crew records match the actual fishermen on board.
“If a captain has 10 laborers, and one isn’t supposed to be there, the arrest happens at the port,” Adisorn says. “The prosecution starts right there.”
“We have about 10,000 vessels total that we have to check. We can’t check all of them,” he says. Last year, officials tried to do that, he says, and managed to cover roughly 85 percent. “But sometimes, when you try to do too much, the quality isn’t good enough.”
The officers have since been ordered to conduct more intensive checks on fewer boats — a shift to give them ample time to properly scrutinize each crew. Adisorn recalls one recent case in which an officer, skeptical about a young fisherman’s age, pulled the worker off the boat and checked his bone density at a local hospital. He turned out to be underage.
This complex set of rules and tracking systems is now “roughly 80 percent” operational, Adisorn says. Such a sweeping effort to sanitize the Thai fishing industry’s turbid supply chain will face great resistance from many factions. Among them: unscrupulous officials, corrupt factory owners and uncooperative boat captains.
The current government of Thailand, a junta that seized power in 2014, is also an unlikely crusader for liberty. Critics of the royally backed army government can be treated as seditionists. Some have been locked away for mere Facebook posts.
But the government’s anti-slavery plan is already earning cautious praise from Greenpeace, an organization that is more often railing against the fishing industry’s abuses.
“I actually think they’re trying to do the best they can,” says Anchalee Pipattanawattanakul, a Bangkok-based campaigner for the group. “They want to show they’re being transparent. They mostly want the EU to see them as progressive.”
Two years back, the EU sowed fear among Thai officials by threatening to ban all seafood shipments from Thailand if illegality continued unabated. That threat remains in place.
These reforms were also prodded along by the US State Department, which ranked Thailand’s trafficking problem in a tier alongside the world’s worst offenders such as Haiti or Sudan.
The US has since lifted Thailand from that bottom ranking — a move to acknowledge a wave of prosecutions and asset seizures against traffickers that add up to more than $21 million.
Meanwhile, Thai officials privately note that US pressure has relented under President Donald Trump’s administration, which has proved uncommunicative and not terribly interested in the trafficking issue.
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