Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


How to End Modern Slavery in Thailand’s Seafood Industry

If you’ve ever bought a cheap pack of frozen Thai shrimp from your local store, there’ll be a good chance you and your family will have eaten seafood processed by slave workers who regularly endure violence, torture or even death.

The multi-billion dollar Thai fishing industry has been at the center of a modern slavery scandal for a number of years. In June 2014, a Guardian investigation revealed that major Thai seafood farmers were doing business with suppliers that manned their boats with slave workers who regularly suffered beatings and torture while working 20-hour shifts with no pay. The paper spoke with rescued victims who described seeing fellow slaves executed in a gruesome fashion if they failed to keep pace with the punishing workload forced upon them. Much of the food ultimately produced by these appallingly mistreated workers is known to end up on the shelves of western supermarkets.

Despite an increased global focus on forced labor and human trafficking – including the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s recent Human Trafficking Awareness Month and the introduction of Modern Slavery Act in the UK last year – authorities in Thailand have been slow to clean up their fishery supply chains.

At the beginning of February, officials in Thailand said they had investigated 36 cases of abuse and arrested over 100 people during the first eight months of a crackdown on forced labor in the country’s seafood industry. While this is certainly an improvement over the 15 cases probed during the preceding 16 months, it can be viewed as limited progress at best.

Only last November, food giant Nestlé announced it had discovered evidence of modern slavery in its Thai supply chains, admitting that impoverished workers were being forced to process seafood that ends up in its products, many of which are sold in the west. Nestlé, the largest food producer in the world, said all companies that buy fish from Thailand are likely to be supporting modern slavery.

Both the European Union and the US government have warned Thailand about its failure to deal with the problem, with the former threatening to ban the country’s fishery exports if efforts were not made to reform its unregulated fishing markets. In the face of this growing international pressure, human rights groups have questioned why the Thai government has failed to act decisively, having made repeated promises to come down hard on trafficking syndicates. Some campaigners have suggested corrupt senior Thai officials are deeply involved – or at least complicit – in the human trafficking trade, and that the authoritarian regime run by General Prayuth Chan-ocha is merely paying lip service to worries raised over documented abuses in the country’s seafood industry.

According to reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Guardian, Thailand’s most senior police official in charge of human trafficking, Major General Paween Pongsirin, fled to Australia seeking asylum last December in fear for his life and said senior figures in the Thai military junta and police force are implicated in trafficking and want him dead.

Paween, who was appointed to head up an investigation after more than 30 graves believed to belong to trafficked Rohingya Muslims were found in an abandoned jungle camp near the Thai-Malaysian border, claims he uncovered a major trafficking ring, but said he was under pressure not to pursue the ringleaders “from the beginning.” Rights groups including the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) have warned that corruption remains a significant hindrance to efforts to root out human trafficking and modern slavery from Thailand’s fishing industry, quoting evidence that police and local officials are willing to take large kickbacks from the businesses and brokers involved in the illegal trade. The findings of these organizations appear to support the claims made by Major Paween and suggest the Thai government is either unable or unwilling to introduce effective legislation to end forced labor.

The EJF has suggested the current crackdown is largely cosmetic, and is manly targeting low-level traffickers. Steven Trent, the foundation’s executive director, recently told the AFP news agency: “A very simple benchmark for real progress will be when you start seeing senior Thai figures in courts going through a process of a successful prosecution for their role.” With western supermarkets unwilling to cut their ties with an industry widely documented to be fueled by the blood and sweat of trafficked slaves, the removal of the corrupt regime overseen by Gen Prayuth is left as the only hope of lifting the virtual immunity enjoyed by crooked Thai officials.

Instead of helping to fight trafficking and forced labor, the authoritarian rule of Thailand’s military junta serves only to perpetrate abuses committed against the country’s slave workforce. Those truly responsible for allowing this abhorrent trade to continue – all in the name of maintaining Thailand’s position as the world’s third-largest seafood exporter – will be unlikely to face justice until after free and fair elections are held that result in the formation of a democratically-elected civilian government. Despite assurances from Prayuth that the elections will be held in 2017, few actually believe him.

So far, the general pushed back the date three times, citing the need to oversee the drafting process of Thailand’s new constitution. When the first draft was published by a military appointed council back in September, a second military council rejected it and restarted the process. A second version was unveiled in early January, but human rights activists have pilloried the drafting committee for awarding too much power to the military junta and for containing a provision that could be used to maintain the generals in power indefinitely.