PHNOM PENH —
Human rights workers say the US and other countries should censure Thailand over fisheries practices that mean near-slavery for many Cambodians and others.
An investigative report by the UK-based Guardian newspaper exposed serious abuses in the Thai fishing trade, where workers are cheated of pay, kept at sea for prolonged periods and physically abused or killed in the process.
US officials say they are to review Thailand’s practices in an upcoming Trafficking in Persons report, but they declined to comment on whether they would downgrade the country.
Thousands of Cambodians work illegally in the fishing industry, which is rife with abuse. Those who escape fishing vessels tell of long hours, beatings and other dangers, of being cheated by middlemen and sold to captains.
A six-month investigation of the Thai shrimping industry by the Guardian revealed slave-like conditions. The series reported on Cambodians and Burmese bought and sold from ship to ship, forced to work 20 hours a day, and even killed if they were too weak to continue working.
The Guardian also reported that US officials are considering downgrading Thailand in its next Trafficking in Persons report.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not confirm those reports when questioned at a briefing in Washington. “I’ll just suggest to you, everybody tune in for that report,” she said.
In Cambodia, rights workers say Thailand should be brought to task for conditions in its fishing industry.
Ya Navuth, executive director of Caram Cambodia, which works to help escaped migrant fishermen, said the US and international buyers should pressure Thai authorities to solve the problem.
“Not many people, especially buyers, think about where their food comes from and how,” he said. Pressure could bring “positive changes,” he said, including help with the rescue and aid of many others trapped in the trade.
Lim Mony, deputy chief of the women and children’s program for the rights group Adhoc, said workers in the industry are enslaved, brutally tortured, forced to take drugs and sometimes killed when they are unable to continue working.
“Strong reactions from international buyers are more likely to bring change,” she said. “In the face of strong [economic] pressure, some captains who sell their fishing products may change their perceptions by giving some rights to workers.”
Not everyone believes it will be so easy.
Hoy Pich Sovann, who heads a labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said economic pressure may not be effective in ending the practice.
Buyers can put pressure on the industry, he said, “but they will never be able to talk to the captain who wants cheap or unpaid labor and longer hours and who works laborers like slaves.”