By Deb Bennett
It will come as no surprise to many that seafood has become increasingly popular in Australia in recent years. A growing awareness of the health benefits of eating fish means the traditional ‘meat and three veg’ has been replaced with salmon steaks, tuna or shell fish.
What might surprise some is that nearly 72 per cent of our seafood is actually imported from overseas – predominantly Thailand, New Zealand, Vietnam and China. According to figures released by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC), Thailand accounted for 30 per cent of the imported volume in the year 2008-9 and was the principal source of canned tuna, frozen prawns and various prawn products.
While some may baulk at the cost of seafood – particularly shell fish – few realise the price paid by some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
Human trafficking problems in Thailand are enormous. Thailand is host to between two million and four million migrant workers, 80 per cent of whom are believed to have come from Burma and the rest largely from Cambodia and Laos. Of the total number of migrant workers it is estimated 1.5 million are working illegally within Thailand.
Human trafficking occurs in parts of the Thai seafood industry, both on fishing boats and in seafood plants.
The trafficking of men onto Thai fishing boats gained momentum after the ravages of Typhoon Gay in 1989, which resulted in the sinking of more than 200 fishing boats and caused at least 458 deaths. As a result of this horrendous incident, fearful Thai crews abandoned the sector, leaving the remaining boat owners in desperate need of labour.
Due to the vast labour shortages, recruitment for workers in the fishing industry in Thailand remains largely based on informal recruiting processes. This often leads to abuse and cultivates human trafficking from neighbouring countries.
A 2011 report released by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) detailed the methods used by brokers to recruit workers on fishing vessels. The report, Trafficking of Fishermen in Thailand, states that very few people actively seek work on fishing vessels, as conditions are known to be dangerous.
Labour brokers travel to villages in Cambodia or Burma and promise men and boys employment in construction or factories. Brokers pay for the travel arrangements of workers to Thailand.
Migrants, most of whom don’t speak Thai, arrive at their destination and find themselves at the mercy of the brokers. If they attempt to go to the authorities, they will be arrested as illegal immigrants. Fishing boats are desperate for workers, so brokers sell the migrants to ship captains for large sums – reported to be between 10,000 to 30,000 baht (approximately $300 – $900) per person. The workers then have to work to pay off the debt from their earnings of between 4000 to 5000 baht ($120 – $150) per month.
Once the debt to the captain is paid off, there is still no guarantee the fishermen will be paid. The fishing boats literally become floating jails or workhouses from which there is no escape.
Small vessels are refuelled and supplied from larger ‘mother’ ships that also collect the caught fish and transfer men from boat to boat. This means the crew are often at sea for months or even years on end. Conditions for workers on board are primitive to say the least. Anecdotal evidence from those who have managed to escape includes regular beatings, working up to 20 hours a day, little food or water and extremely cramped living conditions.
Fishermen tell of their drinks being spiked with amphetamines to keep them awake, and some even speak of murder. Alastair Leithead from BBC News in Bangkok reported on the conditions on some Thai fishing boats. In one interview, a young fisherman described what happened to those who attempted to escape.
“Three men tried to escape. They grabbed fishing net floats and jumped in the sea, but it was very rough and two drowned as they couldn’t swim. The other was caught when he got to shore. They brought him back to the boat his face was swollen from being beaten and tortured. They called us on deck. The captain said this is what will happen if you try to escape. The man was tortured with electric shocks and was then shot in front of us all and thrown overboard.”
When fishermen do manage to escape, they are often at the mercy of authorities who treat them as illegal immigrants. Some face beatings at the hands of corrupt police and, rather than being deported home, may be sold to work on another boat or in palm plantations.
It is estimated 150,000 men work on Thai fishing boats. Although it is only a small proportion of workers who are exploited, it is difficult to determine definitive numbers.
Under Thai law, ship captains are required to register their crew, but use a range of tactics to get around this law. Often they will register one boat but use others under the same name, so creating ‘phantom’ boats. They will also supply crew with false names and identity papers.
Policing conditions for workers on board would appear to be an almost impossible task, but a variety of international organisations are working towards this goal.
Concern has also been raised about conditions in seafood processing plants. Although conditions in plants that export seafood have improved, there is still concern for workers employed in shelling sheds for prawn processing. Use of trafficked, forced and exploited child labour is still apparently widespread.
The complexity of the supply chain is often cited as a reason that international companies using fish imported from Thailand don’t push harder for better regulation. Fish from different sources is often mixed together prior to sale, so a blanket ban on imported fish products would harm those who aren’t breaking any laws or exploiting workers.
Ambassador Luis CdeBaca is the director of the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. In an article published by The Investigative Fund, Mr CdeBaca questioned the validity of this argument. He pointed out how quickly companies are able to identify their supply chains in cases of food poisoning or salmonella.
“It’s a matter of connecting the dots and finding out who the abusive contractors, farmers or ship captains are,” he said.
The Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit works with a number of people in Bangkok who are involved in collecting information about what is happening in processing plants and on fishing vessels.
JIM director Dr Mark Zirnsak recently visited Bangkok to meet with non-government organisations working to end human trafficking in the seafood industry in Thailand, representatives of the seafood industry and representatives of the Thai government.
“The good news is it would appear that both domestic and international attention to trafficking and forced labour in the Thai seafood industry has led to a reduction in abuses in seafood processing plants that produce for export,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“International concern regarding the abuses has been important, as without it parts of the Thai seafood industry would have felt little pressure to implement reforms.
“However, organisations on the ground in Thailand suggest there is no sign of improvement in the severe abuses on a minority of Thai fishing boats.”
Dr Zirnsak wants to make it clear that trafficking only occurs in a small part of the Thai fishing fleet, but the abuses for those trafficked onto fishing boats are extreme.
International attention is encouraging the Thai Government to take action to address the issue and it is working with the UN body, the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The Government is mapping prawn shelling sheds and inspecting seafood processing facilities and developing good practice guides for processing plants, shelling sheds and fishing vessels.
In early February, Dr Zirnsak travelled to Thailand with the Seafood Importers Association of Australia for meetings with the Thai Frozen Food Association (TFFA). In positive signs of efforts to address forced and trafficked labour, the TFFA had entered into a partnership with a local Thai non-government organisation, the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), to establish a hotline to report labour abuses.
The hotline number is displayed on multi-lingual posters in seafood processing plants that are members of the TFFA.
LPN reported a recent case in which a factory owner called them after a labour broker tried to sell him two teenaged girls to work in the factory. The girls, from a Burmese migrant family, had in reality been kidnapped. As a result of the call, the police were able to arrest the labour broker and return the girls to their family.
“The answer here is not to boycott seafood from Thailand, as this will hurt the businesses that are doing the right thing and their workers,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“Instead the JIM unit will be offering opportunities in the coming months for Uniting Church members to put pressure on Australian seafood importers that have so far failed to take action to ensure their suppliers are not associated with forced or trafficked labour.”