Some were stuck at sea, or stranded on islands, for years. Others were drugged and then woke up offshore, turned into slaves overnight. All were lied to, and those lucky enough to be rescued all told similar stories of a “living hell” on board Thailand’s fishing boats.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha addressed the issue last week, when he visited Samut Sakhon and Phetchaburi provinces during his mobile cabinet trip. His primary goal was to expedite a crackdown on the persisting issues of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and human trafficking in the industry.
In a speech, he told locals and government officials in Samut Sakhon: “I came here to express my commitment in dealing with IUU and human trafficking in fishery.”
The prime minister has already set measures under the European Union’s recommendations in a bid to create good fisheries practices that meet global standards so that foreign customers could be sure that all marine products from Thailand are IUU-free.
The EU had issued numerous warnings to Thailand over its IUU fishing problems, but no serious action was taken until 2015, when the country was issued a “yellow card”. This meant that unless Thailand made significant, verifiable progress on the issue, it would be banned from shipping seafood to EU markets – a move that could cost the economy more than US$300 million (K402.2 billion) a year.
While in the port city of Samut Sakhon last week, Gen Prayut and his cabinet members last week visited the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), which provides help to migrant workers including those in the fisheries sector, Thai Union Group, the world’s largest exporter of processed seafood, and the Fish Marketing Organisation.
Greeting the premier and his cabinet members in this fishing town were not only current workers in the industry, but also a handful of fishermen who had fallen prey to forced labour practices, many of whom had been held captive on Ambon and Benjina islands in Indonesia.
Some fishermen went to work on board the boats with the hope that a better life awaited them there.
Some were lured by the promise of a 2 percent share of profits on sales of fish after the boat returned to shore, only to be left disillusioned by a harsh reality of broken promises and back-breaking work. They faced harsh working conditions every day and with no stated finishing date, on the boats and islands where they were held captive.
Watcharin Chanchoohon, 49, first went to work on board a ship of his own accord in 2008, but he was kept on Bejina island for almost seven years with no means of escape. He was finally rescued by the LPN in 2015.
Watcharin reported that he was paid just 200,000 baht (K8.57 million) for his seven years’ labour. The 2pc profit share he had been promised was nowhere to be found.
“There was no written contract; only word of mouth. I couldn’t do anything [to prove I was owed this money],” he said.
Watcharin said throughout the seven years that he worked on board, he had to endure harsh treatment and was forced to work relentlessly.
“I was kept on an island and was not allowed to go anywhere else,” he said.
He said he wants nothing more than for the government to ensure the safety of workers in the fishing industry and to disseminate good practices among employers and prospective employees who wish to work as fishermen in foreign waters.
“I also want the government to mandate that employers write contracts that are just and fair to the workers, and to abide by these contracts,” he said.
Another fisherman, Akadech Silue, claimed he was enjoying a night out in a karaoke bar in Samut Sakhon when he passed out, only to find himself on board a fishing boat when he woke up two days later.
“I woke up and found out that I was in the middle of the sea. I later learned that I was in Indonesia. Once I was there, I had no other choice but to work,” he said.
Apart from harsh conditions that he described as a “living hell”, he told of the brutality he experienced first-hand on board.
“One fisherman was severely beaten with a steel rod,” he said.
“Once the person who did that found that he had beaten the fisherman to death, he ordered me to carry the corpse and store it in the freezer with the fish caught from the sea,” he said.
Adding to the pain was that the skipper who committed the murder was a fellow Thai, he said.
Waiting for justice
Akadech said the person who had sedated him and took him to the fishing boat has been brought to justice. His case has gone before the court and has been settled, but Akadech said he has not received the compensation awarded to him.
Sharing their experiences and opinions, the group of fishermen interviewed said they think the government is not proactive enough in providing help to stranded fishermen, and that they have not received any further help or assistance.
LPN, the fishermen said, was the only agency that had helped them, by staging the rescue operation.
MFA spokesperson Busadee Santipitaks said that the Royal Thai Embassy in Jakarta has saved a total of 1983 Thai fishing crew members since October 2014. However, the Thai embassy could not help workers of other nationalities, according to international agreements. In such cases, the Thai embassy notified non-governmental organisations to help them, Ms Busadee said.
Gen Chatchai Sarikulya, deputy prime minister, said that the government has turned its attention back to the fishery issue not only in an attempt to get the EU’s yellow card lifted but with the ultimate goal of ensuring the country’s marine resources remain sustainable.
“Our indicator of success would not be freedom from the yellow card, but the fertility of our marine resources,” Gen Chatchai said.
“If we can achieve this, it means we are moving in the right direction. We aim to be completely IUU-free, with the support of the EU.”
IUU-free status would mean all fishing activities are monitored with tools set up by the government, such as a tracking system for labour and produce, information sharing, workers properly trained in good fishing practices, and more.
The government will also establish a certification system so that all vessels and equipment entering Thai ports can be properly documented according to a nationwide protocol.
Tackling illegal activities
Gen Chatchai said achieving all this might take two years or more, but in doing so, Thailand will be well prepared to tackle illegal fishing activities and its industry practices will meet international standards.
He said that, furthermore, Thailand will be able to play a key role in tackling illegal fishing activities in the ASEAN region.
The deputy prime minister added that the country will welcome an EU team on April 4-11 to inspect the country’s progress in dealing with IUU problems.
According to the Enforcement Coordinating Centre-Maritime Information Sharing Centre, there are 6905 trawlers weighing more than 10 tonne gross, which are required by law to report their arrivals and departures. These reports will be sent to the fishing information system set up by the Department of Fisheries, which uses a vessel monitoring system to instantly verify licences issued by the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources.
Meanwhile, details of trawler crews on board must be logged in a seaman’s book, and a trawler captain is expected to keep a logbook detailing fish catches and the location of where they had been fishing. A sensor system will also be employed to monitor the use of fishing gear to ensure they are legal.
The government is phasing in eye scanners for migrant workers as a way to verify their identities. So far, 13,498 of 85,411 known alien workers have had their eyes scanned, or about 16pc.
Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, voiced confidence that the country will be able to achieve sustainable marine resources status with a well-regulated system and the cooperation of all stakeholders.
At least, Mongkol said, the association would like to reduce the number of commercial trawlers by half, from 20,000 to 10,000, or even more if the government implements a policy to buy unwanted trawlers for destruction. Such a programme would cost about 2 billion baht, he said.
He added that fewer trawlers at sea will allow the marine population to regenerate.