The fishing industry accounts for 40 percent of Thai exports of food products and is a mainstay of the economy.
But its image has been badly damaged by accounts of abuse of illegal immigrants held captive and forced into unpaid labour, sometimes on boats at sea for years on end without receiving any payment for their work.
Thailand pulled out the stops for the SIAL international food fair outside Paris this past week, sending a delegation replete with officials from the labour and fisheries ministries, plus police and anti-human trafficking experts as well as industry leaders.
They then travelled on to Brussels to lobby EU officials.
“We don’t deny there is a problem,” said Foreign Ministry official Sarun Charoensuwan at a special seminar on the subject.
“A lot of concrete measures are on their way.”
According to a June article by the British daily The Guardian, there is a lot to be done by Thailand’s prawn industry, the world’s largest, which sends about a quarter of its exports to the United States where they are known as shrimp, and 15 percent to Europe.
The newspaper found the sector relies heavily upon fish meal, which was often supplied by ships using slave labour, to raise the prawns.
It interviewed numerous escapees from ships, fishermen and ship captains who told of the trafficking of unsuspecting workers onto boats where they could end up being exploited for years. The workers had thought they were heading for factory or construction jobs in Thailand.
They recounted twenty-hour days and regular beatings for even those who worked hard, as well as torture and execution-style killings.
A 2011 report by the International Organization for Migration found that labourers sold by traffickers to ship captains could end up spending years working on boats without pay or stepping on shore.
France’s Carrefour, the second-biggest retail group in the world, suspended its purchases of Thai prawns in June following the publication of the article in The Guardian.
‘Nothing has changed’
Seeking to protect the key industry and its global reputation, Thailand intends to solve the problem by “bringing illegal migrants into the formal labour market”, according to Charoensuwan.
Military leaders who took power in a coup in May have launched a vast programme to provide official papers to illegal immigrants.
Official said that 1.4 million workers had been issued with papers, and that 50,000 of these work in the fishing industries.
But hundreds of thousands more immigrants are estimated still to be working illegally.
A new law requires managers of fishing companies to provide labour contracts and to respect minimum levels of pay and of time off. They are also banned from employing youngsters under 15 years old.
Late last year, 178 companies in the Thai fisheries sector signed a charter of good practice, under the aegis of the government and the International Labour Organization.
One of the signatories was Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, which used to supply international supermarket giants Walmart of the United States, Carrefour of France and British group Tesco.
Activists are not satisfied with the results.
“We were brought in for briefings, but we are really disappointed by the programme,” said Andy Hall, a British labour rights activist who wrote a report alleging exploitation of workers in the Thai agriculture industry, for which he risks a prison term.
He said workers and trade unions had been excluded from training conducted under the government-industry programme.
“Nothing on the ground has changed”, he said. (AFP)