Up to 20 hours of physically demanding work a day and not much food; some ships stay at sea for months on end, few of the crew members receive the promised payment. Anyone who gets sick, doesn’t do as they are told, or shows resistance in any way, is bullied by "gang masters", perhaps beaten, and there are even said to have been random killings. The descriptions of the 15 sailors who had escaped from such "slave ships" and could be interviewed by reporters of the "Guardian", are beyond imagination. And they confirm earlier suspicions that were suggested by the UN inquiry into people trafficking in 2009. At that time, 59% of the forced labourers on Thai fishing boats said in interviews that they had themselves seen people killed on board ship. It is partially due to these alarming reports that the United States is now threatening to reduce Thailand to the lowest ranking (3) in the US State Department's Human Trafficking Index that regularly grades states according to how well they combat and prevent human trafficking and forced labour. This would jeopardize the country’s current trade status with the United States.
Level 3 in the US Trafficking Index would put Thailand on the same level as countries like North Korea, Zimbabwe and Cuba. The very idea outrages many Thais for they are convinced that have done more than other countries in Asia to achieve decent working conditions. Hardly any other country in the region was so committed in its fight against child and forced labour, human trafficking, unequal pay, workplace discrimination and other forms of exploitation. Whereas Thailand favoured transparency and reported openly on any still existing deficiencies, other countries preferred to conceal much of what they did – and so now looked better. And indeed, Thailand has in recent years significantly intensified its activities in the fight against human trafficking. The number of police investigations in this area has more than doubled from 306 in 2012 to 674 in 2013. But just as false as the claim that all employees in "risk industries" are automatically victims of human trafficking would be the presumption that with this all problems have now been solved.
Unlike its neighbours, Thailand stands on a very sound economic footing. The economy is booming and suffers from a chronic shortage of workers. The legal minimum wage of 300 baht / day, nearly 7.50 euros, is four to five times higher than the average daily earnings of workers in neighbouring countries. These are attractive conditions, and they act as a strong pull for the region’s poorest people. For more than 10 years immigrants have been entering the country illegally via the approximately 5,300 km long, virtually uncontrollable green border. Most of them (that is around 90%) come from Myanmar, the rest mainly from Laos and Cambodia. Professional smuggler gangs have developed that are specialized in the business and they are paid well for their “services”. A lot of immigrants intentionally leave their ID cards and ID documents at home to conceal the fact that they have left the country. The risk is otherwise great that mafia gangs will demand cash from the remaining family members at home. Sometimes even entire families are tempted to cross the border, for example for the sugar cane harvest. During these three months, parents often let their children work in order to scrape together more money for the rest of the year. Many illegal immigrants are already heavily in debt when they come into the country and are therefore willing to accept any job they can get. The According to Dr Poj Aramwattananont, President of the Thai Frozen Foods Association (TFFA), the key to solving the problems of human trafficking and illegal work lies less in Thailand, but more in the illegal immigrants’ countries of origin. Exactly how many people live illegally in Thailand today could so far only be guessed. According to estimates, their number was probably between two and three million. Many of them are without documents, untrained and largely deprived of any legal rights; they cannot speak, read or write the Thai language, and are not entitled to social benefits. They form a reservoir of workers in a legal gray area from which unscrupulous exploiters and profiteers are only too happy to take their pick.
That said, Thailand’s labour law can withstand international comparison. The Labour Protection Act B.E. 2541, for example, defines basic standards such as working hours, overtime, work breaks, holidays, fair remuneration, severance pay, rules for temporary employment, termination rights and possible penalties in case of violations. The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act B.E. 2551 from the year 2008 makes all forms of human trafficking a punishable offence. The cases described in the "Guardian" could thus have been prosecuted and might even have been able to save lives on the "slave ships" if the reporters had made their contact persons known to the responsible authorities in good time… which they hadn’t, however. Apparently the journalists had been more interested in their newspaper’s circulation figures, complains Songsak Saichuea from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The official government statistics confirm his statements. In 2011, 19 people were arrested for infringing against the Human Trafficking Act. In 2012 and 2013, the number of arrests was even higher at 43 and 80 cases respectively.
Most companies treat immigrants correctly
Foreign workers are to be found in almost all sectors of the Thai economy: in the catering, building and domestic sectors, in industry and agriculture, but especially in the fish industry. According to official figures from the government, nearly 300,000 people work in the country’s fish industry, 90 per cent of them allegedly migrants. The vast majority of these workers are treated well and paid fairly, say Poj Aramwattananont from TFFA and Dr Chanintr Chalisarapong, President of the Association of the Tuna Industry TTIA. And foreign workers were urgently needed: without them a lot of companies would probably have to close down. For this reason alone no company could afford to harass or exploit people. A study conducted in 2012 in shrimp peeling plants in Samut Sakhon City, a centre for such work in Thailand, revealed that even in very small businesses the workers were paid the minimum wage. In large enterprises with more than 50 employees, peelers on average even earned 407 baht / day, because wages in the pre-processing area often included a performance-related component.
In July 2014, the Thai Frozen Foods Association, which represents virtually all major seafood processing and exporting companies in Thailand, published a twelve-page position paper defining the attitude of the association members on human trafficking and other related problems. In it, the companies subscribe to the principles of Good Labour Practice (GLP), and reject without reservation child and forced labour. Companies organized in TFFA have set up telephone hotlines via which foreign workers can immediately contact the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) if they have any complaints or need help. Burmese-speaking staff are also available there as a contact. The hotline number is visible on posters in various languages. If a company fails to comply with the requirements of the position paper, sanctions can be imposed under Article 12 of the TFFA statutes, which provides for severe penalties in the event that someone intentionally harms the industry. The first violation will lead to TFFA sending only a warning letter with a request that in future the company complies with all regulations and guidelines. A second violation can mean that TFFA will refuse to provide health certificates and DS-2031 forms, which are necessary for export to the EU or USA. A third violation can lead to the suspension of the company’s association membership or even to expulsion from TFFA, which is tantamount to a full export ban.
In November 2013, the eight largest organizations in the fish industry joined forces to form the "Thai Fishery Producers Coalition" (TFPC) and as their first joint action signed a "Declaration of Intent" which clearly speaks out against human trafficking, child labour and forced labour.
It was not by chance that the "Guardian" named Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods in connection with "slave labour" on fishing vessels. Basically, one could have pointed a finger at all other establishments where fishmeal is given as feed. But for the purpose of drawing worldwide attention to the issue, CP was, of course, a very good choice. They have an annual turnover of more than 33 billion US $ and are thus a true global player in the food industry, mainly distributing their products in the western world. And it worked: shortly after publication of the "Guardian" article the company’s shares (CP is listed on the London Stock Exchange) fell against the market trend by 6.1%. Subsequently the market value of Thai Union Frozen Products (-3.6%) and GFPT (-1.5%) fell sharply, too. Retail chains took CP products off their shelves, and some put business with the company temporarily on ice.
CP itself is not even accused of people trafficking or forced labour. But the company could not rule out with absolute certainty that a share of the fishmeal processed by the group’s five feed mills was produced from fish that came from "slave ships". Strictly speaking, only a few fishmeal users in Thailand and other Asian countries can currently claim this, because traceability in this area is still in its infancy and not guaranteed to be without gaps. CP itself owns neither fishing vessels nor fishmeal factories and relies on suppliers for this important feed component. In 2013, CP purchased approximately 45,000 tonnes of fishmeal from 55 independent fishmeal producers, of which 40 (73%) are already certified and buy their raw materials in accordance with current sustainability standards such as the IFFO RS-label. In the past, CP had also always sought to buy flawless fishmeal, said Nutnicha Limpanawat, who is responsible for the purchase of raw materials for the feed mill Banbueng. CP had in 2013 alone, for example, paid premium prices of 1.5 million US $ above the regular market value for fishmeal whose raw material without doubt came from non-IUU declared fishing. Already on 17 June, just a week after the suggestion by the "Guardian" that fishmeal from dubious sources involving forced labour could be in the supply chain, CP had imposed a moratorium on all suspicious fishmeal supplies, confirmed Pitipong Dajjarukul from the group’s Feed Raw Material Office. They were now in the process of introducing a rigorous change in purchasing policy and reducing the number of suppliers. As from 2015 CP intends only to use fishmeal from certified suppliers (e.g. IFFO RS). At the Banbueng plant CP had already introduced a modern traceability system, which allows the tracing of all components via a 13-character code.
GLP Action Plan should permanently improve working conditions
Pornsil Patchrintanakul, President of the Thai Feed Mill Association (TFMA) said that although fishmeal was important for Thailand’s animal feed industry it only accounted for 4% of the processed raw material for animal feed in agriculture and aquaculture, of which around 15.5 million tonnes were produced in 2013. Sanguansak Akaravarinechai, President of the Thai Fishmeal Producers Association (TFPA) confirmed this information and said that the 90 fishmeal factories in Thailand had in 2013 together produced 500,000 tonnes of fishmeal, of which 120,000 t were exported. 400,000 t remained on the domestic market. About two-thirds of the raw materials were trimmings and waste that occurred in processing plants when processing tuna and tilapia or during surimi production. The remaining third came from fishery catches – mainly by-catch and fish species that were unfit for human consumption. An industrial fishery for the supply of fishmeal plants like that in Europe or South America does not exist in Thailand.
Because virtually every small boat and large deep-sea vessel could, on its return to port, also land raw materials for fishmeal, it was very difficult to trace origin in each individual case… especially since the "black sheep" of the industry, on whose vessels illegal immigrants are often forced to work, freeze their catch at sea in block form, and transfer it to mother ships to disguise the origin. Such goods are usually funnelled into the market chain via auctions and brokers, something that was detectable only with great determination and at great expense, however. TFPA and the state authorities were currently in the process of implementing a certification system for raw materials which will make it possible to trace back all raw materials with no gaps. This package includes written explanations on "non-IUU conformity", detailed catch records (fish species, quantities, catch areas, vessel, landing port, etc.) as well as a "captain’s declaration", in which he confirms compliance with all regulations and laws.
Thailand is striving not towards a "patchwork of individual rules", but rather a comprehensive solution to the problem of human trafficking and forced labour, said Dr. Waraporn Prompoj from the Department of Fisheries (DoF). They did not only want to fight the inhumane conditions on individual vessels, but to align working conditions throughout the Thai fishing industry to international standards. The fish industry is very important for the country's economy. It produces about 4.2 million tonnes of fish and seafood per year, 90% of which is exported for a total value of 8.8 billion USD, representing 1.5% of Thailand’s exports.
In close cooperation with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the relevant government departments and industry associations in Thailand, the DoF has prepared an action plan that is constantly being revised and updated. At its core this plan provides for the adoption and implementation of codes of Good Labour Practices (GLP) in all companies in the industry. Main points of GLP are the prohibition of child and forced labour and human trafficking, and a fundamental improvement in the working conditions and social standards within the industry. The GLP rules were modified and adjusted for processing plants, the shrimp industry and the fisheries in order to meet the special requirements of each of these sectors more effectively. To prevent the exploitation of foreign workers, work recruitment centres will in future take over the placement and legal protection of employees.
A special focus of the Action Plan, however, was on the GLP rules for fishing, explained Dr. Waraporn. In addition to the applicable laws (e.g. Occupational Safety BE 2541, Anti-Trafficking BE 2551, Safety, Health and Environment BE 2554) the ILO Work in Fishing Convention 188 and Recommendation 199 had been taken into consideration in the plan’s wording. This meant that key ingredients such as the recruitment of seamen, employment contracts, safety and accommodation on board, working hours, breaks and holidays were regulated by law. Child labour, human trafficking and other exploitive practices were not tolerated. Until mid-2014 pilot tests were carried out to assess the suitability of these GLP rules on fishing vessels. Once the results have been evaluated and any necessary corrections made, the rules will be put into practice. The Marine Department of the Ministry of Transport has already begun to officially register all vessels in Thailand. Parallel to this the crews are being documented (name, photo, fingerprint) and the fishing gear licensed. These data serve as a basis for control by police, coast guard and surveillance authorities. All vessels operating outside of territorial waters must install a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) which enables the monitoring of vessel positions and activities and is to prevent IUU fishing. Official guidelines for the inspection of ships at sea and in port are currently being drawn up. Stricter controls when entering and leaving port are to prevent human trafficking and smuggling. In addition, Thailand seeks closer cooperation with coastal states in the region to enable inspection of vessels on the high seas. In the long term, however, the DoF aims at installing more technology on board in order to greatly reduce the number of seamen, said Dr. Waraporn. In mid-2014 a newly designed purse seiner went into operation in Samutsakhon already with a reduced crew, and this vessel is to act as a model to show what technical options are available in this area.
In addition, Thailand plans to set up a task force to monitor and confirm the implementation of GLP rules. The task force will be made up of representatives of the Ministry of Labour, DoF and ILO, industry associations, trade unions and seafood importers from several countries, (about two to three per continent).
However, the most important provision in the package of measures against human trafficking and forced labour is the registration of all illegal immigrants by state Labour Coordination Centers (LCC). This measure was indeed already decided by the Cabinet Resolution of August 6, 2013, but got off to a slow start. Since Thailand's army took over power in the country on 22 May, however, the decision is being implemented rigorously and consistently. This will give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the chance to work legally in the country. They will be covered by health insurance and enjoy exactly the same rights as their Thai colleagues. Thailand's economy welcomes this move fully because it can solve the country’s labour problem and put an end to criminal activities.
Thailand has been trying to resolve the problems of illegal immigration and human trafficking, forced labour and child labour for already over two and a half years. So the "Guardian" did not "expose" these problems, but it brought them to the notice of the public, thereby increasing the pressure to act, and accelerating the process of finding a solution. The bundle of measures recently introduced should ensure that Thailand will have solved the core problems of its labour market already in a few weeks.
More than 65,000 Illegal immigrants registered every day
In coordination with its neighbouring countries, Thailand’s military government, the "National Council for Peace and Order" (NCPO), has ordered the registration of all illegal immigrants. To implement the measure 82 stations were set up nationwide. They register 800 people in a "one stop service" every day and collect all data in a central database. The registration process began in mid-July and is expected to end in mid-August. This time span should suffice to capture the data of nearly two million people but, if necessary, it can be extended. Employers who already employ "illegal immigrants" or have need of labour have to register, too. The number seeking registration is huge because in future no one can be employed without a valid work card and because registration is very inexpensive at about 3,080 baht (around 77 euros). It previously cost three to four times as much.
The process of registration is monitored by the military and strictly organized. When registering, all personal data and the intended area of work is recorded and the applicant is given a number that accompanies him throughout the process. Applicants are questioned individually (in the language of the country of origin, if necessary) and all information is fed into a database. After that, a drug screening is carried out, and for women additionally a pregnancy test because pregnant women are not allowed to perform all jobs. At the next station, all applicants are treated preventively against elephantiasis and other worm diseases that have been eradicated in Thailand. Then passport photos are taken, fingerprints done and health checks performed (blood pressure, x-ray, blood count). In between, additional personal interviews are conducted if necessary. Since a lot of immigrants have no documents proving their age, in cases of doubt age determination based on bone structure is performed. During the registration process, all applicants complete a health insurance and are informed of their rights and obligations as workers in Thailand. Anyone who meets all the requirements obtains the coveted card on the spot after 5 to 6 hours. It entitles him to work legally in the declared area in Thailand initially for only eight months but as from 2015 the term is to be extended to one year. Loss of the card must be reported immediately to the police. Rejection rate during registration is about 5%.
With this registration Thailand is draining the swamp of human trafficking and forced labour. "Anyone who is registered and recorded in the system can also be protected," said M.L. Puntrik Smiti, Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour. The social systems are also open to immigrants, giving them health protection and pension benefits. The Thai authorities will for the first time be able to get an overview of how many people are in the country, how they are distributed over the provinces, and what jobs they perform.