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Thailand Migrant Workers Sign Contracts They Don’t Understand, Undercutting Efforts to Stop Abuses

FILE - Workers peel shrimp at the Thai Union factory in Samut Sakhon, Thailand.
FILE - Workers peel shrimp at the Thai Union factory in Samut Sakhon, Thailand.

Migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar are being asked to sign contracts they cannot read in order to work in Thailand’s fishing fleet, a new study has found, undercutting efforts to expunge abuses from a sector worth billions of dollars to the Southeast Asian country.

Thailand is one of the world’s largest fish and seafood producers, boasting global brands that include John West and Chicken of the Sea.

Authorities have been scrambling for several years to clean up an industry riddled with abuses, though, after grim revelations of human trafficking of Thais and migrant workers, forced work, defaults on payments, beatings and even murders on fishing boats.

All of this contributed to the U.S State Department dropping Thailand onto the worst possible ranking — Tier 3 — of its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report in 2015, as well as threats by the European Union to suspend seafood imports for alleged illegal and overfishing.

However, Thai government efforts to register all workers with contracts, identity cards and e-payments to ensure salaries are paid rather than deferred — alongside wider prosecution of human traffickers — have helped the kingdom move into Tier 2.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha has said he hopes his country will be elevated to the top tier -- compliant with U.S. standards -- after an extensive campaign to monitor the fishing sector, including spot inspections and electronic tags to track unscrupulous boat owners.

The latest TIP report is expected to be published in the coming weeks; but a survey by the ITF-Fishers’ Rights Network, shows that basic legal protections for workers are still not being met.

Of 520 fishers surveyed at Thai ports between March-June 2021, the FRN said just a tiny fraction had even had their contracts translated into their native languages.

“A shocking 89 percent of fishers had not had their contract translated or explained to them in a language they could understand,” said Jon Hartough, ITF-FRN Thailand Project Lead.

“Quite often fishers are recruited in rural areas of Myanmar and Cambodia ... it’s a verbal contract when they are told what the terms and conditions will be. But when they sign the document, it’s unclear what the conditions are, they are signing,” he added.

“This is important ... because of how this manifests in working conditions.”

Vulnerable fishers are often low-skilled and desperate for income — a condition worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as Myanmar’s economic collapse following a February 1 coup.

“Burmese and Khmer fishers still face serious issues such as wage theft, lack of adequate food or clean drinking water on board, debt bondage, document retention and other labor abuses,” according to Ye Thwe, FRN president and former fisherman.

“The Thai government commitments are as thin as the paper they’re written on. Labor violations are still rampant, and contracts are not being properly followed,” he said, adding fishers often report late or incomplete payments, dangerous conditions at sea and deliberately misleading contracts - where they exist at all.

The Department of Fisheries says it has translated government guidelines into fishers’ languages, so they know their rights under tightened Thai laws.

“The DOF has prepared a manual for commercial fishermen ... in an easy-to-understand language and distributed it to fishermen, to build knowledge and understanding of legal guidelines,” Mesak Pakdeekong, director general of the Department of Fisheries, told reporters in early June.

Meanwhile, authorities have released a ‘PROTECT-U’ multilingual app to help victims of trafficking seek urgent help safely.

While not named in the FRN study, big seafood companies including Thai Union, which owns Chicken of the Sea, say they have made major strides to clean up their supply chains and adhere strictly to government rules.

But labor rights groups say the recruitment system is prone to abuses.

Brokers travel across poor rural areas of Southeast Asia persuading desperate workers to go to sea for long periods of time, often far from contact with authorities or their families.

As profit margins are squeezed in overfished seas, experts say boat owners or unscrupulous captains who marshal the workers hold out on agreed salaries or instead promise a percentage of the catch as payment that never materializes.

Yet the supply of labor has increased since the pandemic with whole communities left out of work for months on end.

One Thai fisherman from the landlocked northeastern farming region of Isaan, who has been cheated of his wages before but is preparing to go back out to sea, said the poorest have few options as the pandemic crushes their incomes.

“The guys from my village still go out to sea,” the fisher told VOA news, requesting anonymity. “We know the risks, but we’re willing to gamble our lives. Staying home can be as bad; we can go hungry.”