Thai fishing industry: abuses continue in unpoliced waters, Greenpeace claims

Date: December 15, 2016

Source: The Guardian
Author: Kate Hodal

Report alleges exposure of human rights abuses including trafficking and labour exploitation has simply prompted move to more remote waters.

An international crackdown on human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry has resulted in vessels travelling thousands of miles further into remote and lawless waters, where trafficked men continue to be beaten and sold at sea, a 12-month Greenpeace investigation alleges.

According to the report, published on Thursday, seafood caught by such vessels is largely illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) and has entered the supply chains of multiple companies producing food for global export, including to the UK, in clear violation of international labour, supply and fishing codes.

The allegations are likely to heap further pressure on Thailand’s $6.5bn (£5.1bn) seafood export industry – the fourth largest in the world, according to the most recent figures – which has suffered significantly over the past few years following allegations of human rights, labour and IUU fishing abuses both at sea and on land. Thailand was given a “yellow card” warning by the EU last year to clean up or face a ban on EU imports.

“For some years there’s been a growing awareness of the endemic labour rights issues in the Thai seafood industry, which companies have repeatedly brushed under the carpet,” said Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace.

“There can no longer be unsubstantiated assurances of workers’ rights while companies continue to profit from turning a blind eye.”

Depleted seafood stocks in the Gulf of Thailand have encouraged Thai vessels to explore neighbouring waters off the coasts of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, often using fake permits and ghost fleets to avoid inspection by authorities. But a new government policy to sink vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters has forced such boats into less policed waters off Papua New Guinea’s southern “dog leg” region, Greenpeace claims.

The report alleges that, when authorities also began clamping down on IUU fishing in Papua New Guinea, Thai vessels sailed out to the isolated, bio-diverse Saya de Malha bank off the eastern coast of mainland Africa, more than 7,000km from home ports in Thailand.

Here, on large refrigerated vessels known as “reefers”, Thai captains have engaged in a fishing frenzy over the past 18 months. Located north-east of Madagascar, Saya de Malha is the world’s largest submerged bank and part of an underwater ridge that connects Mauritius with the Seychelles. The shallow tropical marine system – roughly the size of Belgium – is not adequately policed by either country, however, allowing human rights and fishing abuses to continue at large, the report claims.

Beyond the view of authorities, Thai captains abuse, beat and traffic fishermen from boat to boat in the seafood-rich waters, Greenpeace alleges, despite the government’s legislative efforts to curb both IUU fishing and human rights abuses at sea. The vessels catch a variety of species including snapper, bream, rays, shark, mackerel and tuna, which Greenpeace claims are likely to have ended up in European, North American and Asia Pacific supermarkets and restaurants in the form of surimi, imitation crabmeat and pet food.

Survivors who had been on board these reefers told Greenpeace that daily beatings were part and parcel of everyday life, and that many had given up hope of ever getting off the boats alive.

“We were kicked, punched and beaten with sticks,” one survivor told Greenpeace. “Once, one of the Thai crew was forced to the floor of the deck while the captain stepped on his face. About 10 minutes later, the engineer beat the man until his face was swollen, and threatened to throw him into the sea.”

Another survivor said: “Working on a boat faced with violence and abuse, in the middle of the ocean where you couldn’t even see the shore … it seemed like there was no future at all.”

With the reefers spending months and sometimes years at sea, and solely reliant on trans-shipments every 90 days to receive food supplies, fishermen have been exposed to beriberi, a preventable disease caused by vitamin B1 deficiency that was common in the 19th century. Beriberi was responsible for the hospitalisation and death of a number of Cambodian and Thai fishermen earlier this year who had been aboard a Saya de Malha reefer for nine months continuously.

According to a 2016 Thai government report, nearly half of the 1,000 fishermen on 50 vessels in Saya de Malha bank were working in violation of immigration and labour laws, Greenpeace claims. Interviews with fishermen on board tuna gillnetters – which had also been operating in the bank – revealed that the men had been trafficked on to the boats after being told they would be employed at an on-shore fish processing factory, working eight-hour days with food and clothing provided.

Instead, the report claims, the men worked 20-hour days, seven days a week, and were told they could only leave the vessels once they had paid back the 30,000 baht (£660) for which the captains had bought them. Some fishermen had been at sea for as long as five years, the report says.

Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation said the findings demonstrated how little Thai vessels had applied basic international labour standards.

“Vessels fishing thousands of miles from their home country are inherently risky and difficult to control and it is essential that Thailand pays particular attention to them,” Trent said.

“They must ensure that vessels have observers, are tracked 24/7 by satellite, and are inspected regularly, with attention paid to both fisheries and labour standards. To prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, Thailand should only allow vessels to fish in areas where there is a science-based, robust fisheries management regime in place.”

The report also alleges that the Royal Thai Navy has failed to adequately identify and protect potential trafficking victims, despite an increase in the number of inspections in recent years.

In January, Greenpeace directly observed inter-agency inspections of vessels returning from Saya de Malha bank. Crew members reported that they had not been paid in years, that none of the 57 migrant crew were in possession of correct work permits, and that many had paid extortionate recruitment fees, yet Thai authorities cleared the vessels to return to port, Greenpeace claims.

More than 70% of all known Thai-owned reefers, claims Greenpeace, have at some point operated in areas with “dirty” fishing operations, many of which are family business groupings with interests across the entire seafood supply chain and, in some cases, even politics.

Despite the Thai government’s public interest in addressing problems in the seafood sector, much more needs to be done to reform the industry, as well as police activity at sea, said McCallum.

“Greenpeace is in active discussions with the Royal Thai Government about this issue,” he said. “However, implementation and monitoring will need to be in place over a longer period before we can see the fruits of action.

“One crucial issue which needs to be urgently addressed is the practice of trans-shipment at sea. This allows fishing vessels to remain indefinitely out in the ocean, where monitoring, control and surveillance are limited to non-existent. Greenpeace is urging a moratorium on at-sea trans-shipments for the Thai fleet.”

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