Off the shores of Thailand, a seafood industry flourishes; feeding the world’s multi-billion-dollar appetite for tuna, prawns, and squid. Here, at the ground-zero of the global supply chain for seafood, exploitation, debt-bondage, and slavery are standard workplace practices.
The men who work these boats are in the main Burmese and Cambodian nationals pushed from the poverty of their homelands and attracted by the promise of a salary and remittance. To get to Thailand and to find an employer, most of these migrants use the services of migration brokers and employment agencies, who can charge exorbitant prices for the papers and passes they provide.
These fees, ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 THB ($500 to $1,000 USD), are far beyond the means of most migrants. Their new employers in the fishing industry offer to pay the fees, and thus the migrants begin working heavily indebted to the boat owners. Once working, many fishers must wait more than six to twelve months to see their wage. If they wish to leave, the boat captain can withhold their passport, insisting that the debt be worked off, with interest, before the fisher leaves.
In recent years, awareness of systematic exploitation of migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry has grown amongst consumers. Media reports, films, and books detailing the dangerous workplace practices, the starvation diets, the thirst, the abuse, the lack of medical care, and the system of debt-bondage have contributed to pressuring Thai authorities to act.
In early 2019, the Thai government became the first country in Asia to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Work in Fishing Convention, which aims to protect the living and working conditions of workers on board fishing vessels. This was an important step towards regulating the Thai fishing sector, but according to Ussama Kaewpradap, lead organiser at the Fishers’ Rights Network, this convention and other on-paper reforms “have been poorly implemented and only minimally enforced. Although there have been a lot of changes in the industry in the past few years, fishers have seen little direct benefit and still toil in poor working conditions.”
Ussama explains that since the ratification of the Work in Fishing Convention, the Thai government has begun a process of stakeholder engagement that will help shape the final legislation that will give effect to the convention. These stakeholders, she notes, include government authorities, the boat-owners’ association, and non-government organisations, but exclude the voices of fishers themselves.
This is because, “migrant workers are still denied their right to freedom of association” in Thailand’s 1975 Labour Relations Act, which prevents migrants from formally registering trade unions and serving on union committees. Until the Thai government ratifies the International Labour Organisation’s conventions on Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, exploitation and abuse will continue.
Not only are migrant workers in Thailand not permitted to form unions, but they must work in only one nominated economic sector; meaning that Burmese and Cambodian fishers cannot seek work in manufacturing or agriculture, for example. And if they do resign, they must find a new employer within just fifteen days, otherwise their visa will be terminated.
Labour advocates are not content to wait until Thai authorities extend labour rights to migrant workers. They are already beginning the task of educating fishers on their rights, developing their skills to take collective action, and advocating for their rights to Thai authorities and seafood companies. “By building a union,” Ussama says, “fishers have the power of a united voice to demand structural and systemic changes in the industry.”
In a country where migrant workers fear deportation, and in an industry where employers can physically abuse workers, this process of union-building is a slow task that requires organisers to build relationships of trust amongst fishers. Once trust has been built, organisers can then provide fishers with first-aid kits and training, education on rights, and skills for taking action.
One of those organisers, a young Burmese former fisher named Chan Myae Aung, remembers his days working on a fishing boat before becoming a union organiser with the Fishers’ Rights Network. “The fishing boat was very dangerous. We were surrounded by dangerous machines, and they became even more dangerous because we weren’t trained properly on how to operate them.” Because of negligent workplace health and safety practices, Chan Myae Aung has been injured possibly for life:
“Once, my wrist was hit by a rope running through a winch, and it took me two months to recover. To this day, my wrist still has not fully healed and I still have pain and problems moving it. My employer gave me 5,000 Baht ($120 USD) for the injury and medical treatment, and that was all. Nowadays, when I lift heavy things, I always have a sharp pain in my wrist.”
About a year before he became an organiser, Chan Myae Aung helped organise a strike on board his fishing boat. “Our captain,” he says, “wanted to fish in a restricted area (offshore a national park), and many of us were concerned because we had heard about a group of fishers that had recently been arrested because they followed their captain’s order and got caught fishing in a restricted area. Those fishers went to jail, but their captain was granted bail. I was afraid that the same thing would happen to us, so we decided as a group to stop work.” Their strike convinced the boat captain to avoid the restricted area return to port. The fishers avoided potential arrest and deportation.
Until Thailand recognises the right of fishers like Chan Myae Aung to form a union, their welfare will continue to be dependent on a host of unwilling, unable, or unwanting regulators, police officers, and boat owners. “Building our own union,” Chan Myae Aung says, “is the only long-term solution to fix problems. With our own union, we will be able to fight for ourselves, and win the kind of respect and dignity we deserve.”
This article was first published in Global Voices, an international community of writers dedicated to building understanding across borders. Click here to read Tim’s contributions to Global Voices.
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