Human rights and labor activists have urged Cambodian workers on Thai trawlers to be cautious amid concerns that the lifting of an EU warning on the Thai fishing industry for compliance following scandals over slavery could have a negative impact on their safety.
In 2015 the EU issued a “yellow card” warning to the industry due to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, but lifted the warning last month.
Thailand has “successfully addressed” its legal framework in line with international law and improved its monitoring and surveillance system, the EU said. These steps included remote monitoring of fishing at sea and “robust” inspections at the port, it added.
“Despite all of this, it doesn’t mean that they [Cambodian fishermen] are 100 percent safe,” said Dy Thehoya, program director of labor rights group Central. “This is because the policy is just a policy; even now we’ve seen some progress. Lifting the yellow card happened only after the EU had reviewed the work several times.”
Thehoya added that Thai fishing boats did not identify fishermen by their nationalities in the past, making losses at sea unaccountable and that their journeys were not properly recorded, with some fishermen remaining at sea for months. But EU sanctions have prompted a change.
“Now we see that registration is at almost 99 percent,” said Thehoya. “The workers’ identities are clearly identified by countries they are from before the boats leave the docks ... and they have to come back within 30 days … but from now on how effective that is remains to be seen.”
Thailand exported over $8 billion of seafood products in 2017, with more than $700 million going to the EU market.
"While not part of the bilateral dialogue on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the commission and the European External Action Service have addressed with Thai authorities the serious human rights abuses and forced labor in the fishing industry,” said EU Commissioner for fisheries Karmenu Vella. “Thailand has recently announced the ratification of the International Labour Organisation's convention No.188 on Work in Fishing, the first country in Asia to do so."
More than 1 million Cambodians are reported to migrate to Thailand each year, working in factories, plantations, and in the fishing industry. Some have been tricked by recruitment agencies and have fallen victims to modern slavery, overwork, low pay, poor living conditions, and debt.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that there are still cases of forced labor, human trafficking, and injury on fishing boats, without compensation.
“Thailand has done a fairly inadequate job of ensuring that fishing boat captains and fishing fleet owners pay the money to compensate workers for the injury they’ve suffered or for the harm that’s caused to them by forced labor,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson. “This is an industry that tries to get the maximum from the people while paying very little to people in terms of wages and compensation.”
Robertson added that officials at the ports do not ask workers to elaborate on their working situation at sea.
HRW urged the EU and US to keep monitoring Thai food production activities and to apply more pressure.
"Although the yellow card has been removed, the situation is still tense,” said Mu Sochua, vice president of the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. “That's why I'm worried. I do not believe that Cambodians working on Thai fishing boats are out of danger. There are still thousands of them getting stranded at sea.”
The Cambodian government has said it has done its part to protect migrant workers overseas by issuing a policy, which focuses on protecting their rights and interests, and has an agreement of cooperation with Thai authorities.