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. 

Migrant workers’ rights must be strengthened in Thailand. The Thai Government, working closely with industry, has erected numerous barriers to genuine worker empowerment, capitalizing on low labor costs to expand export markets. Based on our work on the ground, we believe the following issues are most in need of immediate action to remedy the situation:

  1. Recognize migrant workers’ right to freedom of association. Migrant workers in Thailand are prohibited by the Labor Relations Law of 1975 from forming their own unions or serving in leadership positions within a union. Groups such as Human Rights Watch have documented that in practice, infringement of the rights of migrant workers expands much further, leading to severe restrictions on freedom of movement, assembly and ownership. Discriminatory labor laws must be amended so that all workers in Thailand, regardless of nationality, have the same rights to organize into their own representative groups. Industry, however, can and should take initiative to protect worker rights by voluntarily recognizing migrant groups and negotiating with them to improve working conditions at individual worksites.
  2. Reform laws governing migrant worker recruitment and employment. Migrant workers are bound to their current employer, and often their recruiter, through a complicated registration process. Workers must pay large fees up front to obtain work permits, often need to rely on a recruiter or employer to obtain documents, and have only a week to find a new employer, even in cases of abuse, before risking deportation. The registration process must be changed to give workers more time to find new employment if necessary and simplified so that workers, perhaps with the assistance of migrant worker organizations, can control the process themselves without having to forfeit essential documents to recruiters and employers.
  3. Strengthen workplace auditing and complaint mechanisms. Exploited migrant workers have few options for reporting abuse. The International Labor Organization has recommended mandating access to complaint mechanisms for non-Thai nationals, designating an institution responsible for administering that mechanism, prohibiting retaliation against workers who register complaints and ensuring those workers retain the legal status to work. It is also important that groups representing migrant workers are included in these grievance processes to build legitimacy and trust. Industry has a vital role to play in this process by allowing such groups access to workers and allowing unannounced workplace audits by independent organizations.
  4. End use of criminal defamation to muzzle free expression. Thai companies under fire for their labor practices have been effective in silencing their critics by charging them with criminal defamation. In an ongoing case, Andy Hall, a British national who reported on the human cost of cheap pineapple production in Thailand, has had charges brought against him by Natural Fruit Company. He faces two years in prison as well as up to $10 million in liabilities for reporting on the company’s abuse of migrant workers. Under the criminal defamation law, those who speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable are subject to retribution from powerful industry actors with support from state organs.