Who Suffers for our Seafood?: The Thai Fishing Industry.

Do you indulge in a scrumptious fish pie? Or have a secret obsession for a yummy prawn mayo sandwich? But how ethical is our eating? More often than not, the fish you find on the supermarket shelf is not sourced from your local supermarket shelf is not sourced from your local seaside town but has been imported from a series of international locations. Do we know where our fish is from? Due to the complexity of the seafood supply chain, it is estimated that the fish we buy in stores is mislabelled 1/3 of the time. This article will look at the issues of Thailand’s $7bn (£5bn) fishing industry, revealing the hidden costs of the fish we buy.

In recent years there has been increasing allegations and rising suspicion that our fish has been sourced illegally and unsafely, often relying on the use of forced labour at multiple stages within the supply chain. In response, consumers worldwide are demanding retailers and suppliers to present us with the story behind our fish. Many supermarkets are now making the necessary steps to provide consumers with greater information, strengthening their relationship with their suppliers and looking for ways in which conditions for labourers across the global industry.

But why does it remain increasingly difficult to purchase ethical, sustainable and safely caught fish? In April 2015, the Thai fishing industry was seen to be operating so poorly that the EU threatened to issue a European wide boycott if they didn’t clean up their act.

Who is effected by poor regulation and unsafe working standards across Thailand’s fishing industry?

The Thai fishing industry relies so heavily on migrant workers that foreign labourers make up more than 90% of the Thai fishing sector. The migrant labour force increasing the risk of fishing vessel managers exploiting and victimising their workers, frightening their labour force with the threat of police arrests and deportation if they do not comply. Most commonly, workers are trafficked form Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia, where men are lured in by the promise of a good wage, accommodation and stable employment. On arriving in Thailand, workers are often bound by ‘debt-bondage’, where individuals are forced to work repay their travel costs and to pay for their expense of fake documents. Due to limited employment opportunities in Cambodia and a weak depreciating currency, Cambodian men continue to fall for the false promises of traffickers and the opportunity to earn higher wages with the Thai ‘Baht’.

How bad are working conditions?

In many cases workers are beaten if they fail to work, with some workers reporting that weaker members of the team would be thrown overboard. Often only able to sleep for one hour a day, if labourers were seen to be tired or working poorly, men would be forced to drink a white dissolvable powder in water; drugs suspected to be amphetamines.

How can we prevent the exploitation of migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry?

Between 600,000 and 1 million Cambodians travel to Thailand for work every year; without passports or travel documents they become easy targets for exploitation. To combat trafficking networks, the Cambodian government should make it easier and more accessible for citizens. The total cost of processing a Cambodian passport can cost up to $500 and can take up to six months. The system is made increasingly difficult by requiring residents to travel to the capital to process their application and is likely to cost half of a Cambodian’s annual wage. Making the passport process cheaper as well as creating provincial offices within Cambodia would encourage citizens to travel to Thailand legally, reducing the trafficker’s ability to operate.

In reaction to the EU’s threat to prevent the distribution and trade of Thai fish, the Thai government have made a series of changes to improve the corruption and slavery that is characteristic of their fishing industry.

Since the EU’s warning:

The Thai government have created an illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) enforcement act that is consistent with EU regulations, preventing human trafficking and modern slavery through imprisoning and prosecuting offenders.

It is now illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to be working on fishing boats or within fish factories.

A registration system has now been implemented to identify any illegal fishing and to track every fishing boat operation in Thailand’s waters.

An agreement has been created to prevent the sale of illegally sourced fish to consumers. Signing the agreement, manufacturers promise to eliminate products that are known to be the result of modern slavery or human trafficking.

Many research agencies are unhopeful about the measures, recognising that the politics have only created new problems among the industry. The vessels have now shifted into remote waters, pushing human trafficking networks into more distant locations. Using fake papers and permits, many Thai boats are reported to be operating off the coasts of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. To transform the sector effectively, the government needs to restrict fishing vessels ability to operate in waters remaining that are outside of surveillance and monitoring measures.

‘Future of Fish’

Achieving transparency within the fishing industry is a challenging and complex process, however Future of Fish are at the forefront of transforming the industry. This organisation works with retailers and suppliers across the seafood industry to develop innovative, forward-thinking technologies that can help to build to a transparent process for consumers and businesses alike. By creating ‘fish stories’ aka supply chain transparency, it enables and encourages companies to see the benefits of sourcing responsibly; incentives players to address their labour force working, internationally. Through technology, we’ll be in a better position to identify both trafficking and modern slavery victims as well as fish that is caught outside of regulated areas. You can learn more about the Future of Fish by visiting their website here.

Take action: educate yourself.

To learn more: read the New York Times series ‘The Outlaw Ocean’ on the lawlessness of the high seas. Ian Urbina reveals how crime and violence in international waters often goes unpunished. Additionally, the Greenpeace Report ‘Turn-The-Tide’ is thorough and informative!

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