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Responding to the Thai seafood crisis: What still needs to be done?

June 7, 2016

In collaboration with Humanity United, the Freedom Fund has released a new report assessing Thai government and private sector responses to the grave human rights and environmental abuses in Thailand’s fishing and seafood industries. The Guardian’s June 2014 exposé directly linking Thai and global seafood companies to modern slavery and human trafficking increased international attention to the problem and was the impetus for Thailand’s government to make significant strides in reforming legislation and policies to protect workers on shipping vessels that had not been modified since 1947. Unfortunately, there still exists a lack of clarity on what improvements have been implemented on the ground and what still needs to be done.

Read the report here.

The report was produced through a combination of desk and field research conducted between November 2015 and April 2016. Incorporating data from interviews with key stakeholders in government, business and civil society, on-site observations in eight Thai ports across five provinces and an in-depth review of current policies, the report offers an evaluation of recent government and business actions around the Thai seafood crisis and recommends practical improvements for both government and private sector stakeholders.

At the root of the problem is regulation. Both in planning and enforcement, the lack of regulation perpetuates the prevalence and severity of slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry. Even with recent private and public action, decades of illegal and abusive practices have contributed to a culture of exploitation at sea, making slavery a norm and presenting a significant, long-term challenge to all stakeholders. The report recommends that the Thai government:  

  1. Standardise inspections in ports and at sea to ensure confidence in the national verification process;
  2. Increase the ability of inspections to identify labour abuses by boosting funding, improving interview practices, and shifting incentive structures for officials;
  3. Strengthen Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) and the ability to regulate transshipment; and
  4. Prioritise the development of an ethical, long-term solution to the challenges of labour shortages in the seafood.

The Guardian investigation also encouraged important developments in the private sector. The Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force, organised in July 2014 by Charoen Pokphand Foods and U.S. retailer Costco, both implicated in the Guardian report, aims to work with governments including the US Department of State, EU and the Royal Thai Government. The Task Force now includes over 80% of national, EU and US companies representing over $16 billion in Thai seafood purchasing power but membership is completely voluntary which could result in a lack of accountability in the long term. Civil society has also been engaged for technical expertise but the Task Force has faced criticism for its lack of Thai NGO and worker representation. To ensure lasting impact, Thai and international seafood companies must:

  1. Acknowledge that serious human rights abuses continue to occur in the Thai fishing industry;
  2. Leverage the collective voice of industry – national and international – to ensure new Thai government-led systems are resourced, implemented, and effective;
  3. Prioritise an expansion of the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force that includes direct workers’ representation; and
  4. Ensure the Task Force Code of Conduct is universally adopted upstream of Task Force suppliers and reflects best practice.

As the Thai government moves forward with implementation and enforcement, it is critical that all efforts are sustainable and inclusive of appropriate stakeholders. Though the government has significantly increased funding and resources allocated to human trafficking and issues in the fishing industry, these monies must be monitored, maintained and potentially increased to ensure long-term investment in ending the Thai seafood crisis. Moreover, implementation and enforcement targets must be realistic and allow the space for comprehensive inspections.

We at the Freedom Fund commend Thailand for making crucial policy reforms in the fishing industry and are committed to seeing an end to the Thai seafood crisis through collaborative and sustainable implementation.

Image credits: Josh Stride © Humanity United

Written by
The Freedom Fund