Thailand ratifies directive to improve labor conditions for commercial fishers

GENEVA, Switzerland — Officials in Thailand took the first step in protecting the working conditions of its domestic fishers by signing the Work in Fishing Convention of 2007 on Jan. 30. Thailand is the first Asian nation (and 14th overall) to sign on to the Convention.

            Work in Fishing Convention is considered the baseline standard for labor relations and working conditions in the world of international fishing. The treaty, which was backed by the International Labour Organization, or ILO, specifically addresses the living and working relations of fishers who work aboard fishing vessels.

            “The Work in Fishing Convention sets out binding requirements relating to work on board fishing vessels, including occupational safety and health, medical care at sea and ashore, rest periods, written work agreements, and social security protection. It also aims to ensure that fishing vessels provide decent living conditions for fishers on board,” International Labour Organization staff said in a released statement.

            Thailand’s fishing and seafood processing industry employed more than 600,000 people in 2017, according to International Labour Organization staff.

            “The Thai fishing and seafood processing sectors together employed more than 600,000 workers in 2017, of whom 302,000 were registered migrant workers,” International Labour Organization staff stated. “The Thai fishing industry alone registered more than 57,000 migrant fishers in 2017 on approximately 10,550 commercial fishing vessels.”

Slavery Conditions

            Southeast Asia, as a whole, is a global player in the seafood market. Commercial fishing and seafood exports contribute about US$6 billion to the Thai economy, International Labour Organization staff added.

            Slavery and poor working conditions, however, has been a rampant accusation in Thailand’s commercial fishing industry. Human Rights Watch, in an article published on Jan. 23, 2018, called out the Thai government for failing to take necessary steps “to end forced labor and other serious abuses on fishing boats.”

            “The prevalence of forced labor in the Thai fishing industry reflects a longstanding lack of respect for basic rights in the sector. Human Rights Watch’s findings show that labor and human rights violations come together under different configurations to put workers into situations of forced labor, as defined in the International Labour Organization,” the paper, headlined Hidden Chains: Rights Abuses and Forced Labor in Thailand’s Fishing Industry stated.

            Human Rights Watch’s article did acknowledge Thailand’s attempt to overhaul monitoring of the country’s fishing industry and enactment/enforcement of new laws, particularly in response to a crackdown by the European Union on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the waters south of Bangkok. But violation of stricter laws might be going unnoticed due to a reliance on enforcement via paper records (as opposed to physically inspecting for abuses), according to Human Rights Watch.

            “Many of the human rights problems in Thailand’s fishing industry are common to migrant workers in sectors throughout Thailand’s economy, whose exploitation is aggravated, and sometimes caused, by the government’s haphazard national policies on labor migration,” Human Rights Watch’s researchers stated. “In its migration policies, the Thai government has sought to balance negative public attitudes about migration and alleged national security concerns about migrants with strong economic demand for low-cost labor. The result has been contradictory and inconsistent migration policymaking.”

            Part of the problem, according to Human Rights Watch, is what happens to fishing vessel workers after beginning employment.

            “Human Rights Watch’s research found that migrant workers who voluntarily enter employment aboard Thai fishing vessels often cannot leave because boat owners, skippers, and brokers hold them in forced labor,” the Human Rights Watch article stated. “They may work alongside individuals who secured their jobs through similar channels but who are not victims of forced labor, or alongside individuals who can be considered trafficking victims as a result of the way they were recruited.”

            Compounding the problem, as mentioned above, is what Human Rights Watch called a “weak inspection regime.”

            “Human Rights Watch’s research found multiple indicators of forced labor that Thai inspection frameworks fail to adequately or systematically address, including deception regarding key terms of employment; retention of identity documents; wage withholding; recruitment linked to debt; excessive work hours; and obstruction of workers’ freedom to change employers,” the Jan. 23, 2018 article stated.

New Labor Requirements

            Language within the Convention specifically directs the captain of any fishing vessel navigating within the jurisdiction of its member countries to ensure the safety of all fishers on board and overall safe operation of the vessel.

            Fishers must be allowed to perform his or her respective duties in the “best conditions of safety and health” and not be allowed to suffer from fatigue. On-board occupational safety and health awareness training must be facilitated, and all skippers must ensure “compliance with safety of navigation, watchkeeping and associated good seamanship standards.”

            “The skipper shall not be constrained by the fishing vessel owner from taking any decision which, in the professional judgment of the skipper, is necessary for the safety of the vessel and its safe navigation and safe operation, or the safety of the fishers on board,” language of the Convention continued. “Fishers shall comply with the lawful orders of the skipper and applicable safety and health measures.”

            The Convention also established 16 as the minimum age of any working fishers aboard a commercial fishing vessel, as to protect against child labor practices. (There is an exception, however, allowing for vessel captains to allow a 15-year-old fisher to work.)

            Other requirements by the Convention include:

-       Requiring all fishers to have a valid medical certificate of fitness

-       Allowing for periods of rest

-       Maintaining a crew list

-       Paying fishers a monthly wage

-       Providing food and potable water aboard each fishing excursion

-       Ensuring the proper medical equipment is on board

-       Complying with inspections and compliance procedures.

Sustainable Development Goals and Work in Fishing Convention

            “The Royal Thai government’s ratification of the Convention reflects its strong political will to ensure that the working conditions in its domestic fishing industry meet [International Labour Organization] standards,” Thai Labour Minister, Police General Adul Sangsingkeo said in a released statement. “It underlines Thailand’s full commitment to raising the standards of labour protection for both Thai and migrant workers and eliminating forced labour, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.”

            Sangsingkeo specifically referred to the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, which would, amount other things, establish a standard of “decent work” around the world.

            “It is estimated that [more than] 600 million new jobs need to be created by 2030, just to keep pace with the growth of the global working age population. That’s around 40 million per year,” the United Nations’ directive on decent work and sustainable development stated. “We also need to improve conditions for the some 780 million women and men who are working but not earning enough to lift themselves and their families out of US$2-a-day poverty.”

            Countries in Africa, Europe and South America already backed the Work in Fishing Convention. Nearly half of the signed-on countries are from Africa: Angola, Congo, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal and South Africa. Another six countries are in Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, France, Lithuania, Norway and the United Kingdom.

            Argentina is the sole representative from South America.

            The Convention was written on May 30, 2007 at the International Labour Organization general conference held in Geneva, Switzerland and recognized the effects of globalization on the international fishing industry.

            “The International Labour Organization considers fishing as a hazardous occupation when compared to other occupations,” language in the Work in Fishing Convention stated.

            The Work in Fishing Convention will take full force in Thailand on Jan. 30, 2020, exactly one year after it was ratified.