Victory at Sea!

Thai government backs off prison labor scheme

The Thai government has stated it, "will not use prisoners on fishing vessels now or in the future." The statement came a day after it recieved a letter drafted by ILRF and allies condemning the proposed project.

Forty-five labor and human rights organizations sent the letter on Jan. 14, 2015, to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, asking him to end a pilot project to recruit prisoners from Thailand’s correctional facilities to fill a labor shortage in the fishing industry. Multiple reports have documented gross labor violations on Thai fishing boats, including forced labor, physical violence, illegally low wages and human trafficking.

“We're glad to see the Thai government is making the right decision in this case,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “but it has a long way to go to address the systematic, pervasive labor problems in Thailand’s fishing industry. It is time for the Thai government to recognize that its treatment of migrant workers lies at the heart of the problem and take real, meaningful steps to ensure all workers within its borders work in dignified, just conditions.”

The groups cited rights abuses as a primary reason that explains labor shortages on fishing boats, and said the prison program would do nothing to end those abuses. They also expressed concern that the plan would merely augment the migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia who currently comprise the majority of the workforce on Thai fishing vessels with Thai prisoners who are equally vulnerable to abuses. Migrant fishers are almost entirely undocumented and without legal status, making them afraid to report to Thai authorities about rights violations they suffer on fishing boats.

The signatories also predicted the prison labor plan could have negative economic and political consequences for Thailand. It noted Western retailers and buyers are already increasingly wary that Thai seafood is produced in supply chains dependent on forced labor and other labor rights abuses, and warned that this scrutiny would intensify if buyers have to deal with new concerns regarding conscripted prison labor in their supply chains.

“The retailers we have worked with in Australia are very responsive to the threat of forced labor in their supply chains,” said Mark Zirnsak, director of the Justice & International Mission at the Uniting Church in Australia Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. “We are working with them, and with Thai suppliers, to increase transparency and ensure just working conditions on Thai fishing vessels. We are deeply concerned that the prison labor program could make it more difficult for the industry partners we work with to verify workers in their supply chains are working without threat of coercion.”

The letter also noted that the plan could be considered evidence by the US State Department that the Thai government is unable, or unwilling, to address the risk of human trafficking in its fishing fleets. Thailand was downgraded to the lowest rank, Tier 3, in the United States’ 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, and the fishing industry cited as a major area of concern.

“Thailand has repeatedly said that it’s committed to end forced labor and human trafficking, but this pilot project heads in precisely the opposite direction and will make things worse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “This prisoners on fishing boats project should be immediately scrapped.”