BANGKOK — Some workers are sold onto boats by their families, others by unscrupulous employment brokers.
Nearly half the workers make less than $160 a month in exchange for backbreaking labor. Some might not see any money at all.
And their employers get away with it, because Thailand — the world’s No. 3 seafood exporter after China and Norway — either lacks comprehensive laws to protect migrants from exploitation or fails to enforce existing laws, such as those prohibiting the employment of children under 15 in fishing.
Researchers from the International Labor Organization and the Asian Research Center on Migration at Chulalongkorn University questioned nearly 600 workers in four provinces along Thailand’s coasts for a study
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on the state of the country’s fishing industry.
They found conditions on trawlers so bad that Thai citizens are rarely willing to work on one.
More than 90 percent of the workers interviewed came from Myanmar or Cambodia, where poverty is widespread and jobs are scarce.
Many workers were smuggled into Thailand, arriving without valid work papers that might grant them legal protection. A small number of workers were under the age of 15, put on the boat by parents who waited ashore for their wages.
While most workers said they accepted the job willingly, virtually none was given a written contract that spelled out the conditions of the job or how regularly they would be paid.
Nearly 40 percent of the workers said “deductions” were taken from their pay, but they didn’t know why.
Others said they were lied to about the true nature of the job until it was too late to escape. Physical violence, nonpayment of wages, and the withholding of food were among punishments given to workers who did not submit.
In one case, a Laotian man who traveled to Bangkok in search of work was recruited to work on a vessel. He was told the salary was good and that he would return to shore every 15 days.
When he found out that he would have to work for two years before returning to shore, he refused to get on the boat and was severely beaten by the captain. After five months, the ship docked and he managed to escape.
Max Tunon of the ILO’s Triangle project, which aims to prevent exploitation of migrant workers in the Mekong region, said the organization would like to see Thailand adopt standards and protection measures that conform to ILO standards.
Thailand should require boat operators to maintain crew lists, to provide reliable payment of salaries and a written work contract in a language that the worker can understand, and to set minimum rest hours.
The Thai government is setting up seven centers to oversee recruitment and training as well as registration of vessels, which Tunon called “a positive step as long as there is sufficient oversight of these centers.”
There has been some international pressure to clean up the industry. The European Union enforces restrictions against the sale of seafood involving forced labor. The United States prohibits importation of goods produced by forced labor.
But the strongest pressure for change in the industry may actually come from consumers themselves, the study said.
“There are already indications that consumers are increasingly putting pressure on such large distribution companies, demanding that they cut their ties to suppliers with links” to forced labor and human trafficking, the study said.
A recent petition demanding Wal-Mart, the world’s No. 1 retailer, adopt higher standards for purchasing seafood products collected 100,000 signatures.
But more must be done, especially to protect workers on “long-haul” boats that leave shore for six months or more, said Supang Chantavanich, director of the center at Chulalongkorn University that co-authored the study.
“When a boat goes very far,” she said, “it is beyond the protection of the law.”