Forced labor on Thai fishing vessels

Crew on Rusting Fishing Vessel - Defending Our Oceans Tour. © Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes

UPDATE: Victory! One day after receiving our letter, the Thai government responded with complete withdrawal of their proposal, saying they “will not use prisoners on fishing vessels now or in the future.”

Plan to put prisoners on fishing boats sparks international condemnation – but what will US seafood businesses do?

Late last year, Thai Union purchased the infamous Bumble Bee tuna brand. Given Bumble Bee’s terrible track record, a change in ownership would appear to be a good thing. However, a Thai-based company taking over a brand already linked to ocean destruction and human rights abuses associated with longline fishing raises more questions than answers.

Across the globe, this past year has seen some shocking revelations about labor rights violations, human trafficking and slavery in the fishing industry. In particular, exposés have made the headlines about how workers are misled as they search for an honest living to support their families only to end up in desperate situations aboard fishing vessels far out at sea – out of sight from the rest of the world.

Here’s what’s going on. The demand for cheap seafood is on the rise. Marine wildlife is disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and there is only so much seafood to go around.

One way industrial fishing vessels keep overheads down and seafood cheap is to break existing management and conservation rules by fishing in protected areas, using destructive gear or fishing on endangered species. Another way is to exploit labor.

Thailand is a hotbed for such labor exploitation – although to be clear, not the only culprit. As one of the world’s largest seafood exporters, Thailand relies heavily on migrant workers to catch and process fish and shrimp. Often migrant workers are not legally registered to work in Thailand and are therefore vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The plight of these workers is truly heartrending. Many stories continue to be told about the fate of workers on fishing vessels, from debt bondage to physical abuse, and in extreme cases, murder at sea.

I have witnessed some of this firsthand on my journeys with Greenpeace. Crew often board fishing vessels with no idea that they will be forced to stay out at sea for months and sometimes years at a time. Their papers are taken away from them and being at sea means they cannot escape, let alone communicate their situations. Often not speaking the same language, they are stripped of all human dignity, forced to work long days without adequate rest, sharing bunks in cramped quarters, and with little to no access to sanitation. These workers set out to find work to support their families only to lose contact with their loved ones for long stretches of time and with a mere pittance to send back, if they even get that opportunity.

Following a new wave of scandals, the US government downgraded Thailand’s ranking on its performance on trafficking in persons (TIP). It was a positive step, but we are far from addressing the problem at its core. In fact, things may well get worse with Thailand’s recent proposal to allow prisoners to serve out part or their entire sentence on fishing vessels to make up for a labor shortage. These people are extremely vulnerable and will have no protection from abuse at sea. Thailand should be improving conditions onboard fishing vessels to attract workers voluntarily, rather than resorting to forced labor. Greenpeace Southeast Asia and over forty other organizations submitted a letter to the Thai government just yesterday voicing our concerns over this ludicrous proposition.

Pointing the finger at the Thai government alone is not enough. All of us have a responsibility to question where our seafood comes from. That cheap can of tuna you find yourself reaching for could come at a hefty social and environmental cost. Retailers and seafood producers alike have a responsibility as well. Ultimately, they supply the market and should make every effort to guarantee that our seafood is caught sustainably and fairly. Our briefing on Slavery and Labor Abuse in the Fishing Sector outlines some of the steps government and industry can take to help tackle these issues.

If you are in the US, chances are the tuna you buy is now owned by a Thai-based company. Thai Union is now the world’s largest canned tuna company. Not only do they own Bumble Bee, they also own their competitor Chicken of the Sea. Given Thailand’s recent history, I’d like to know what guarantees the new owners of Bumble Bee are making to ensure their products are slave free – wouldn’t you?

Farah Obaidullah is a Senior Oceans Campaigner with Greenpeace International.

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