Complaints of labor abuses and slavery on Thai fishing boats are routinely going unreported by authorities, an analysis by the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed, raising fears that hundreds of fishermen have been denied justice and compensation.
Revelations of modern slavery at sea emerged in Thailand in 2014, prompting the nation to vow to better regulate the sector to tackle labor exploitation, trafficking and illegal fishing after the EU threatened to ban Thai seafood imports.
However, a senior official said a drive to clean up the industry was waning after exclusively obtained data revealed a large discrepancy between the official number of complaints and those recorded by four leading charities that advocate for fishermen.
Freedom of information requests filed with the government over three months showed that 289 workers on fishing vessels in 11 provinces lodged labor abuse complaints between January 2015 and early this year. There were no details regarding the outcomes.
Yet, the charities said that they had since 2015 helped about 1,600 fishermen from these regions raise grievances over issues from nonpayment and excessive overtime to verbal and physical abuse.
They feared most complaints were being dealt with off-the-books and that workers were missing out on due compensation while exploitative employers avoided scrutiny and punishment.
“For government officials, a large number of complaints means you’re not performing well, and many fishermen agree to mediation because they don’t want to waste time if the case goes to court,” the Raks Thai Foundation’s Sunwanee Dolah said.
“But this results in repeated offenses and wrongdoers not being punished, causing a never-ending cycle of rights violations,” added Sunwanee, whose charity supports fishermen who are mainly migrants from neighboring Cambodia and Myanmar.
Thanaporn Sriyakul, an official in the prime minister’s task force that oversees the fishing industry, said that efforts to enforce labor laws at sea had decreased “at an astonishing rate” since the EU lifted its threat of a ban in January last year.
“Government agencies have not been able to properly pursue complaints, resulting in distrust by the fishers,” Thanaporn said, adding that some Thai Ministry of Labor officials did not understand their duties when it came to reporting grievances.
Labor officials said that individual complaints made against employers had to be registered while general ones filed about the workplace did not, and that this could explain the disparity between the newly revealed state data and the charities’ figure.
However, the charities said that all of the grievances they had helped to raise focused on employers rather than the workplace.
Ministry Inspector General Somboon Trisilanun said he “did not deny” that some complaints had wrongly gone unrecorded.
The data obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation covered 11 provinces, where most of about 63,000 fishers who work on commercial vessels are based. It did not include all fishing regions or workers in a sector employing more than 200,000.
The ministry said that it permitted settlements provided that workers received due compensation in line with Thai labor laws.
Regional labor official Sompop Khongrod said that he preferred to mediate rather than register labor complaints.
“Before submitting a complaint, if we think it’s minor, we call the employer and the case is closed,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February, when he was an assistant to the head of the Office of Labor Protection and Welfare in Songkhla Province.
“I have settled a large number of cases in this way and they weren’t registered in the system,” said Sompop, who has since become head of Yala Province’s Office of Labor Protection and Welfare.
However, activists and lawyers said that settlements result in workers receiving less than they are entitled to and embolden abusive bosses to act with impunity as they avoid sanctions or lawsuits.
“Workers have less negotiating power since labor inspectors tend to support employers,” said Papop Siamhan, an independent lawyer with expertise in human trafficking. “[Labor officials] don’t want to record complaints, because doing so is a burden for them and they are afraid of taking legal action against employers.”
With growing concerns about informal mediation being used to silence cases of forced labor, the Seafood Working Group — a coalition of 60 civil society groups — in March urged the US to demote Thailand in its annual anti-trafficking report.
Last year, Thailand was ranked as a “Tier 2” country — with “Tier 3” being the lowest — in the US Department of State’s closely watched global Trafficking in Persons report, which said that the country was making significant efforts to combat the crime.
Activists said that most fishermen were reluctant to report abuses due to fear of authorities or retribution from employers.
Environmental Justice Foundation head Steve Trent said that his advocacy group had worked with government officials to encourage them to build trust with workers and put them at ease.
“However, this process can take a long time,” Trent said. “If workers do not trust authority figures then they might understandably opt to go to a local NGO [non-governmental organization] instead.”
Research by the UN’s International Labour Organization in March found that of 50 workers in the sector who said that they suffered labor abuses, none had sought help from the state.
The report found that about 10 percent of 470 fishing and seafood workers surveyed said that they had been victims of forced labor, concluding that reforms to working conditions in the industry were having an effect, but that severe exploitation persisted.
For Moe Win, the report’s findings came as no surprise.
The Burmese migrant took up a job as a fisher in southern Pattani Province in August last year, but was paid only half of the promised 10,000 baht (US$314) monthly salary and forced to work more than 14 hours per day — a breach of Thai labor laws.
When his vessel was inspected by authorities, he decided to speak out, but his employer was informed and then berated him and the other fishers on the boat.
Two months later, the Raks Thai Foundation helped him pursue his complaint, but it was not recorded and labor officials chose instead to settle the dispute with his boss.
While Moe Win considered himself fortunate that he ended up receiving his full salary, he feared for his fellow workers.
“Mediation is not good for workers, because it causes employers to commit repeated offenses,” said Moe Win, whose name was changed to protect his identity. “Workers are violated over and over again.”
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