Combatting human trafficking is a global challenge and one that must involve all of us if the demand that fuels it is to be reduced and eventually eliminated.
In many industries across the world, demand for cheap, standardised products continues to fuel abusive labour and human rights practices and undermine the sustainable use of natural resources. In some parts of the world, these practices have become so deeply entrenched in the economic model that momentum for lasting change seems impossible without leveraging the power of the market to force it through.
As the string of recent scandals has demonstrated, modern supply chains have become incredibly complex and require a significantly updated approach to monitoring. The all too common focus on price at all costs, combined with a lack of rigorous independent monitoring and oversight both fuel and facilitate environmental, labour and human rights abuses.
The Thai seafood sector is one particularly clear example of how market pressures can normalise abuse and allow an industry with global export reach to become reliant on the exploitation of its workers. EJF investigations have revealed that the vital export revenue provided by the industry means that authorities are often reluctant to disrupt economic activity with inspections or full enforcement of the law.
EJF has been investigating human rights and labour abuse in the Thai seafood industry since 2012, with a focus on the fishing and shrimp sectors. Throughout these investigations – documented in EJF’s Sold to the Sea, The Hidden Cost and Slavery at Sea reports – it has become clear to me that human trafficking is not just a problem prevalent in the seafood industry; it is a problem which actuallysustains it. EJF has documented shocking and systemic abuses across the Thai seafood industry, and in facilities supplying some of the country's largest exporters. These exporters in turn supply many of the largest retailers in the US and EU, meaning products made by modern-day slaves could be on sale in your local supermarket.
Thailand’s seafood exports are the third most valuable in the world, behind only China and Norway. As a result, Thailand’s seafood industry is at once sophisticated and efficient while remaining dependent on relatively labour-intensive fishing methods and processes, such as shrimp peeling. Thailand’s comparative regional prosperity and ready supply of cheap migrant labour from its underdeveloped neighbours has caused many sectors to favour the use of low-paid migrant workers over investment in labour-saving technologies. It is partly an assumption of the continued availability of cheap migrant labour that has so entrenched exploitation in the seafood industry’s business model.
Poor fisheries management has exacerbated this problem as over-exploited fish stocks force boats to stay at sea for longer and return with smaller catches. As fuel and other core operating costs have increased, further compounded by the need to spend progressively more time at sea as a result of over-fishing, operators have looked to make savings in other areas. Labour costs and working conditions have been identified as areas where cuts can be made, which the International Labour Organization (ILO) says has fundamentally changed the structure of employment and driven both Thai and migrant workers away from the industry.
The resulting labour shortage – estimated to be as high as 50,000 workers – has caused boat operators and business owners to rely on human trafficking networks to fill the gap. The notoriety of the poor working conditions aboard fishing boats among migrants also means that employers and brokers often resort to deception, corruption, coercion and violence in order to meet the demand for workers.
In 2013, EJF documented testimony from 14 Burmese migrants rescued from a port in Trang province, Southern Thailand where they were being held against their will. Brokers in Myanmar promising well-paid jobs in Thailand deceived the men, before they were forced to work at sea for months at a time in brutal conditions without pay. Many reported suffering extreme levels of violence, including being beaten unconscious, for refusing to work on the boats or trying to escape when in port. Some told of witnessing the brutal torture and murder of co-workers who attempted to escape, which they said was a warning to others.
In 2014, EJF conducted further field investigations, finding that these abuses remain widespread, evidencing an industry desperately reliant on cheap labour, even as the labour shortage becomes harder to fill. One young fisher, who escaped from a boat at the port of Samae San in December 2013 after 10 months, told how he was lured to Thailand with promises of a well-paying job in a pineapple factory. On the final leg of the journey that would lead to his enslavement aboard a fishing boat, he and five others were transported in marked police cars before being tricked onto a boat and sent to work at sea. Testimony gathered by EJF records how police regularly re-trafficked workers, selling them on to the highest bidder.
Working on the boat for 10 months, without pay. This fisher recounts how he and his fellow crew suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf. ‘I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored, and he hit me from behind,’ he said. ‘It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious and he smashed my face against the ice.’
EJF’s investigations, documented in Slavery at Sea, include interviews with business owners who insist that the demand for labour will continue to drive trafficking. One Sub-district Chief and business owner told EJF “One factor is that businesspeople need labour, right? Therefore, there will always be individuals willing to engage in things like human trafficking.” Similarly, Thai officials, including a high-ranking member of the Department for Special Investigation (DSI), admit that enforcement of trafficking laws, including inspection and rescue of suspected victims of trafficking, is restricted by a reluctance to deprive the fishing industry of their workforce.
Despite four consecutive years on the Tier 2 Watchlist of the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report and high profile announcements from the Thai Government, human trafficking remains at the core of the fishing industry’s recruitment process and economic model.
But there are solutions and they require the cooperation and dedication of a range of stakeholders in order to eliminate the severe abuses taking place in the industry. Greater monitoring, transparency and traceability across the global seafood industry supply chains will go a long way toward curbing the abuses suffered by fishers in Thailand and around the world. For over a decade, EJF has been campaigning for the adoption of a Global Record of fishing vessels underpinned by an International Maritime Organisation (IMO) number as a Unique Vessel Identifier (UVI). This would help to make inspections by authorities more effective, while adequate training must be provided to help inspectors identify and assist victims of trafficking.
As one trafficking told EJF: ‘Consumers will buy and eat fish as long as they can afford to. But if they knew about us, I think they would have sympathy and no longer consume these products.’ It is time that consumers woke up to the power that is in their purchasing decisions and joined in the fight to see all seafood slaves freed.