The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)* is a UK- based non-profit organisation working internationally to protect the environment and defend human rights. EJF hopes that in the aftermath of this decision, all stakeholders will come together to undertake a focussed and coordinated programme of action to not only eradicate human rights abuses from Thailand’s seafood industry but also protect the region’s overexploited marine environment.
Environmental degradation, brought on by catastrophic failures to manage Thailand’s fisheries, has had a vital part to play in driving an appalling modern slave trade in the Thai seafood sector. After four years on the Tier 2 “Watchlist” of the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Thailand has been downgraded to Tier 3 for failing to take significant action to improve its record on human trafficking. This decision places Thailand among the worst performing countries like Iran and North Korea. It also heralds an opportunity to redouble efforts to address an environmental and human rights crisis.
s TIP report will act as a watershed for Government and industry. Hopefully, it s fishing industry have recognised for some time now the links between Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, the demands of a changing labour market and the occurrence of human trafficking and forced labour aboard Thai fishing vessels. In the early 1960s, when trawlers were first introduced to the region, fishing boats in the Gulf of Thailand netted around 297 kilograms an hour.
Fast forward to 2011 and the same fishing grounds provide just 25 kilograms an hour. On average, the productivity of Thailand’s fisheries has plummeted by an incredible 92.7 percent over the last 40 years. In 2014, EJF witnessed a trawler – owned by a company which has used slave labour – haul in a catch that wouldn’t even cover the operating costs of the vessel. In short, the decimation of Thailand’s marine fisheries is one of the principal reasons that employers and brokers are increasingly willing to resort to deception, corruption and violence in order to meet labour shortfalls. As Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who heads the State Department’s TIP office, observed, Thailand is “a perfect storm of slavery and environmental degradation.”
The Thai fishing industry suffers from a chronic labour shortage, with dangerous and arduous conditions making employment in this sector amongst the least desirable jobs in the country. This labour shortage is exacerbated by the fact that over four decades of appalling mismanagement has left Thailand’s fisheries decimated, meaning boats are forced to stay longer at sea for less catch. In order to reduce costs, wages and working conditions have suffered, making fishing even less attractive to Thai citizens and migrants alike.
To fill this shortfall employers turn to smuggling networks run by brokers who often resort to deception, coercion and violence to supply labour for an industry characterised by abuse. During his speech announcing the release of the TIP report, US Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted how unsustainable business models were driving environmental degradation and human trafficking across the world. An environmental and social tragedy is at the heart of the reason Thailand has been downgraded today.
*EJF charitable trust became a registered charity in England and Wales, charity no. 1088128 (2001); EJF Ltd is an associated non-profit company.