The Thai seafood sector is big business. The country is the world’s third largest exporter of seafood, in 2013 sending around US$7 billion worth of fish to overseas markets like the EU and USA. Thai seafood has made some people very, very rich. But it has also been behind some horrifying human misery and the decimation of marine life in the Gulf of Thailand, the Andaman Sea and beyond. To find out how – and why – this has happened, read on.
The Thai seafood industry has grown continuously since the 1960s, when the first industrial trawlers were introduced. However, management of the fishing vessels and of the entire sector has been appalling. A lack of controls, together with extensive corruption across the sector, resulted in massive over-fishing of Thai marine territories (and further afield), such that most of the high-value commercial species and much of the astonishing wildlife that once populated these waters has been wiped out.
In 2015, the volume of fish Thai vessels were able to catch was just 14% of that from the late 1960s, despite now having more efficient fishing gear and expending greater effort. This has created powerful economic incentives for wrong-doing among the fishing companies that now struggle to make a legal profit.
It is this downward economic spiral of mismanagement and over-fishing that has, along with a number of other important economic, social, cultural and political factors, driven the massive use of trafficked workers and forced labour in the sector. While exhausted fish stocks are pushing fishing vessels to stay out at sea longer, travel further afield, and fish harder for a diminishing catch, operators increasingly turn to trafficked workers, many of whom are forced to work as bonded or slave labour, to cut costs and keep profits.
Migrant workers, largely from Myanmar and Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have filled the labour shortage in the Thai seafood sector. Seeking employment and income from the relatively rich Thai economy, tens of thousands of migrant workers have been trafficked in to the country and, without legal rights, status or proper documentation, large numbers of workers have been tricked into working on Thai fishing vessels. Here, they have been forced into slave or bonded labour in dangerous, harsh and degrading conditions, and have been violently abused and denied basic rights or pay.
But what really shocked me about these abuses was the common and repeated use of the most extreme forms of violence – the murder of so many of these vulnerable migrant workers. When the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) began to raise the alarm on the scope and scale of this abuse many denied it, but without any great effort it was easy to find others who could corroborate our claims.
For example, one study by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) showed that 59% of people working on Thai fishing vessels had witnessed executions at sea. Other studies, both before and since EJF began its investigations into these abuses, have come to the same conclusion. Articles by the Guardian, Associated Press and New York Times all tell a similar story. And the number of individual witness testimonies to slavery, violence and murder is growing.
EJF’s view is that such abuses have no place in our world. They are suffered by humans for an industry that has been supplying consumers in the European Union, United States and elsewhere with cheap ‘luxury’ seafood products, processed meals for our pets, and ready-meals for our busy lives. This is disgraceful.
But perhaps more importantly, now that we do know what is really going on, we can work together to end this slavery and violence. We can vote with our wallets and demand seafood products that are legal, sustainable and ethical. We can pay a price that reflects the true cost and not buy the ‘cheap’ products that may have been produced at the cost of the devastation of our seas and oceans, or a worker’s dignity, liberty or even life.
We need to demand that seafood businesses across the globe adopt the tools that can deliver real transparency and traceability to supply chains. We must demand that they work together to weed out the bad, the criminal, and the killers, and support only the legitimate and hard-working businesses that respect the environment, workers and human rights.
We also need to recognise our role as consumers, paying a bit more to have well-managed fisheries that protect marine biodiversity as they protect human rights and freedoms. There is no magic needed: it can be done, but Governments, businesses and you, the consumer, must work together and insist it is done – and done without delay.
If you want to know more about the issues in the Thai seafood industry and what can be done, please check out the latest investigative film by the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Steve will be speaking at our Food Talk ‘Fishy Business’ at the Impact Hub Kings Cross on 30th June – click here to register.
Follow Steve on Twitter: @steventrent