The global trade in seafood relies heavily on migrant labor and unsustainable fishing practices to meet increasing demand for low-cost seafood.

Migrant labor makes up much of the workforce on many nations’ fishing fleets. Isolation, legal ambiguities on the high seas and exploitative labor recruitment make these workers highly vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labor, wage theft and myriad other egregious labor abuses.

Although labor exploitation has been documented in the fleets and factories of nearly all countries with significant trade in seafood products, Thailand has received the bulk of international focus on this issue. Thailand is one of the largest seafood exporters in the world, and the United States is its largest market, particularly for tuna and shrimp products. Migrant workers-- mostly from neighboring Burma, Cambodia and Laos -- staff this economically important export industry.

Discriminatory immigration and labor policies leave these workers dependent on employers and recruiters, deny them the right to form labor unions, and leave little access to remedy when employers violate labor laws. Research over nearly a decade has uncovered human trafficking, child labor, debt bondage, and other egregious forms of labor rights abuses throughout the Thai seafood industry. We try to influence the Thai government to change the laws that leave migrant workers vulnerable, while working with networks of partners inside Thailand and around the world to support workers in speaking out against abusive conditions, and hold the companies that profit from exploitation accountable.

Products on U.S. grocery shelves, such as frozen shrimp and canned tuna, have been linked to labor trafficking and child labor.

Thousands of migrant workers cross the border into Thailand each year from neighboring countries, with the greatest numbers coming from Burma. An estimated 1.8 million to three million migrant workers live in Thailand, many of them unregistered. These workers are employed in labor-intensive export industries such as fishing, manufacturing, food processing and agriculture.

Labor registration is complex and leaves migrant workers dependent on recruiters and employers and vulnerable to extortion. Indicators of forced labor are common, including document retention, restriction of movement, debt bondage, withholding of wages and excessive overtime. Local police sometimes overlook abuse, and have even been implicated in trafficking schemes. Discriminatory labor law prevents migrant workers from forming labor unions.

The seafood industry, in particular, has had serious concerns with labor trafficking, child labor, and debt bondage, among other abuses. The Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that up to two million people are employed in the seafood industry in Thailand, on fishing vessels and in processing facilities, and 90% are migrant workers. Fishing vessels pose the biggest risk to migrant workers. A prevalence study released in 2017 by the International Justice Mission and Issara Institute found that 40 percent of crew interviewed were victims of trafficking, and another 49% were potential victims given abusive recruitment and employment practices. Nearly all were victims of wage theft and/or illegally low compensation.

In response to the international pressure, Thailand has undertaken a series of significant reforms to improve oversight of its fisheries sector. For instance, it drafted and passed The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, which brings the definition of human trafficking more in line with international standards. Particularly in the seafood sector, it has made attempts to crackdown on illegally operating vessels and increase inspections to ensure all vessels are legally registered and abiding by the law. However, these changes have failed to change the fundamental power imbalance between migrant workers and their employers or to substantively change the reality on the ground for migrant workers, who are still vulnerable to trafficking.

Vulnerable communities are best protected when they are able to protect themselves.

As stories continue to surface about workers being trafficked onto fishing vessels, industry actors are looking for answers. Governments are also under pressure to increase oversight mechanisms. Despite increasing funding, good intentions and exciting momentum, many of the solutions being developed do not address the underlying vulnerability of seafood workers, and thus cannot provide long-term relief. Better solutions must be grounded in actions that shift the power dynamic to foster genuine worker voice:

  • In Thailand, that means significant reform to protect migrant workers.
  • In the seafood sector more broadly, that means ensuring programs that claim to certify or promote “social sustainability” of seafood supply chains establish binding mechanisms for industry improvement with a space for workers themselves to lead standard-setting, monitoring and enforcement.

ILRF is committed to promoting the fundamental changes required to address inadequate worker protections and ending common industry practices that fuel labor exploitation in fishing. We have two projects to accomplish those goals:

Thai Seafood Working Group

The International Labor Rights Forum, in partnership with Humanity United, facilitates the Thai Seafood Working Group, an internationally recognized network of nearly 60 human rights, labor, and environmental organizations from more than a dozen countries that work together to develop and advocate for effective government policies and industry actions to end endemic worker exploitation in the seafood sector.

Independent Monitoring at Sea (IM@SEA)

IM@SEA aims to break the isolation of fishing crew that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by developing a tool for comprehensive, worker-led workplace monitoring and grievance handling for fishing vessels at sea. The long-term goal is to prevent and provide remedy for forced labor and human trafficking on fishing vessels, and reduce IUU fishing, in the Asia-Pacific region by strengthening worker voice and better informing government, industry leaders, and civil society to take action.