Scholarly article on topic 'Slavery scandals: Unpacking labour challenges and policy responses within the off-shore fisheries sector'

Slavery scandals: Unpacking labour challenges and policy responses within the off-shore fisheries sector Academic research paper on "Law"

Share paper
Academic journal
Marine Policy
OECD Field of science
{"Fish workers" / Migration / "Unfree labour" / Trafficking / IUU / "Supply chain management"}

Abstract of research paper on Law, author of scientific article — Melissa Marschke, Peter Vandergeest

Abstract Over the past year, scandals around what has been labelled slave labour in the industrial fisheries sector in Thailand have revealed not only the connections between northern buyers and southern labour practices, but also the relative lack of research on fisheries labour in Asia and the global South. The slavery and trafficking framings pervading these depictions have been very useful for drawing attention to and acting on criminal activities in labour recruitment and abuse, but have limits as a basis for addressing the underlying causes of forced labour in fisheries. Insights from research on regional labour migration as well as the work of civil society organisations in Thailand suggest that broader improvements in labour relations will require changes in migration management, with a focus on addressing vulnerabilities that restrict the abilities of migrant workers to obtain better working conditions. This analysis provides the basis for assessing the potential and limits of recent programmes to improve labour relations on the oceans, including anti-trafficking policies, IUU enforcement, buyer efforts to ensure that supply chains do not involve forced or illegal labour relations, and Thai government actions.

Academic research paper on topic "Slavery scandals: Unpacking labour challenges and policy responses within the off-shore fisheries sector"


Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Marine Policy

journal homepage:

Slavery scandals: Unpacking labour challenges and policy responses within the off-shore fisheries sector

Melissa Marschke3'*, Peter Vandergeestb

a University of Ottawa, 120 University Private, Ottawa, ON, Canada b York University, 4700 Keele Road, Toronto, ON, Canada


Over the past year, scandals around what has been labelled slave labour in the industrial fisheries sector in Thailand have revealed not only the connections between northern buyers and southern labour practices, but also the relative lack of research on fisheries labour in Asia and the global South. The slavery and trafficking framings pervading these depictions have been very useful for drawing attention to and acting on criminal activities in labour recruitment and abuse, but have limits as a basis for addressing the underlying causes of forced labour in fisheries. Insights from research on regional labour migration as well as the work of civil society organisations in Thailand suggest that broader improvements in labour relations will require changes in migration management, with a focus on addressing vulnerabilities that restrict the abilities of migrant workers to obtain better working conditions. This analysis provides the basis for assessing the potential and limits of recent programmes to improve labour relations on the oceans, including anti-trafficking policies, IUU enforcement, buyer efforts to ensure that supply chains do not involve forced or illegal labour relations, and Thai government actions.

© 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND

license (



Article history: Received 14 January 2016 Received in revised form 10 February 2016 Accepted 10 February 2016

Keywords: Fish workers Migration Unfree labour Trafficking IUU

Supply chain management

1. Introduction

Researchers who produce information about fisheries and seafood have explored diverse topics including fisheries sustain-ability, contributions to economic development and coastal communities, changing technologies and more. For example, it is easy to find research on small-scale marine fisheries, detailing their contributions to livelihoods of coastal people (e.g., [1] and [2]) or analyzing management practices with a view to promoting sus-tainability [3]. A theme that has been markedly scarce in the pages of this journal and other research-based publications on fisheries, however, is information about hired workers, in particular within off-shore fisheries in the global South. Within this journal, a few authors have addressed maritime labour policy, for example, policy responses to the ILO's Maritime Labour Convention1 [4] and [5]. But very few articles have focused on worker recruitment and

* Corresponding author.

E-mail addresses: (M. Marschke), (P. Vandergeest).

1 Note that there are other relevant ILO conventions addressing labour in the

fisheries sector, in particular the Work in Fishing Convention 188. This convention has received little academic analysis, in part because only six countries have ratified it to date. However, discussions with ILO staff working on labour in fisheries suggest that this policy holds significant potential, and that Thailand modelled some of its' 2015 fisheries reform after this convention.

working conditions in the fishing industry. Important exceptions include Simmons and Stringer [6] on forced labour in the New Zealand fishing industry, as well as Hara [7] on squid fisheries workers in South Africa.

This lack of knowledge about fisheries workers came to the fore in 2014 when the media exposed controversial 'slave labour' practices of migrants working in Thailand's off-shore fisheries, linking these practices to seafood consumed in Europe by tracing the catch to the manufacturer of feed for farmed shrimp that was exported to Europe [8]. Media coverage began in June 2014 when the Guardian published the results of its investigation, which disseminated to its readership what was already known through previous research by local NGOs and international organisations about working conditions in the Thai fishing sector [9-15]. A series of other media exposés followed, involving further research in Thailand by the Guardian, the New York Times and Associated Press, as will be elaborated below.

For the seafood industry, these media stories exposed an increasing reliance on migrant workers who are often less than free, poorly paid, and abused. Among researchers, these controversies have highlighted how little systematic research has been done on hired labour in fisheries, especially in the global South. Although most workers engaged in fisheries today are still small-scale [16] and [17, p. 60], the industrialisation of fisheries has required the increasing employment of hired workers. Who are these workers, how are they recruited, and what are the conditions of their

0308-597X/© 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

employment? Answers to these questions should be a pre-re-quisite to assessing how governments, the seafood industry, NGOs and other activists might respond to the current controversies around fisheries labour in Thailand and elsewhere.

The purpose of this paper is to review the public controversies surrounding labour on fishing boats in Thailand; outline what is known about fisheries workers in Thailand based on both research and activism in that country; and, critically assess current national and international responses to the controversies in Thailand. The focus is workers on fishing boats; the paper does not take up labour issues in the seafood processing sector. The paper argues that the trafficking framework, and the associated language of slavery, has been effective in drawing world-wide attention to serious labour issues in the fisheries; however, if the broader conditions that facilitate the emergence of human trafficking are to be addressed, then policy-makers need to think about the implications of increasing reliance on migrant workers and migration management. Borrowing from the migration scholarship in Southeast Asia, the paper outlines some of the complex migration processes that enables labour abuse, and to point to some possible ways of intervening to improve these conditions. Finally, the potential impacts and limits of anti-trafficking policies, enforcement of restrictions of seafood from Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fisheries, buyer-driven programmes to ensure abuse-free supply chains, and government action are assessed.

To gather information for this article, an extensive database search on how the stories about labour abuse in Thailand were presented in online newspapers was conducted2, in addition to consulting academic publications and NGO reports. The research by reporters and NGOs is very informative due to the considerable effort, imagination, and courage demonstrated by these groups in obtaining stories about the situations of specific workers, tracing seafood produced by these workers to northern markets, and providing support for the most abused workers. Media and NGO publications are complemented with interviews with civil society organisations working on labour issues in Bangkok at the end of 2015, and with scoping interviews with captains and fish workers in ports across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand during 2014 and 2015.

2. Reflecting on labour challenges in industrial fisheries

2.1. Workers in the thai fisheries

The fisheries sector in Southeast Asia underwent rapid industrialisation during 1950s through the 1970s, as the number of medium to large boats ballooned, and these boats adopted more efficient ways of locating, catching, and preserving fish [18]. Such efficiency required hired labour. During the earlier decades of industrialisation of the fisheries, most hired workers in the Thai fisheries were recruited from nearby coastal peoples or as migrants coming from other parts of Thailand [12] and [19]. But over time the majority of the industry has come to rely on a mostly international migrant workforce, often poorly paid and under highly authoritarian and unequal labour relations [12] and [20]. This turn to international migrant labour can be partly attributed to the danger and difficulty associated with fisheries work, but

2 For the newspaper search, we used FACTIVA (a newspaper data base) to gather newspaper articles that covered labour issues in Thailand's fisheries sector for the past two years (from December 15, 2013 to December 14, 2015). Various search terms (("slave labour" OR "slave labour" OR "modern day slavery" OR "migrant worker" OR "economic migration") NEAR15 fish*) identified 420 newspaper articles, including 278 that focused on Thailand. We have continued to monitor media coverage since December 2015.

also with a need to reduce costs as the catch declined with the devastation of the marine ecology due to unregulated overfishing, especially in the Gulf of Thailand.3

It is difficult to estimate accurately the number of workers on fishing boats, but it is likely well over 100,000. A member survey conducted by the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT) in 2012 estimated the total number of workers in the fisheries sector as 143,000 workers on 9500 boats [12]. This survey would have excluded non-members of the NFAT.

Fishing boats in the offshore sector can be classified according to whether they are short haul (at sea for less than one month) or long haul (at sea more than one month), with the worst labour abuses occur on the long haul boats. In the short haul sector, workers change employers relatively often: In an ILO survey of 600 hired fisheries workers, most of whom were employed in the short haul sector, over two thirds had worked for their current employer for less than one year [12, p. 41 ]. At the same time, employers have been experiencing significant shortages of willing workers [12] and (interviews in Thailand), because work and life on the boats is both very dangerous and extremely difficult. The outcome in the short haul sector is a situation where captains with the worst reputations are most likely to lose their workers, and thus go to brokers who use coercive practices or trafficking. The individuals who end up working for such captains are often those with little experience, which can exacerbate abuse [11, p. 21].

At the same time, the evidence is that unfree and abusive labour relations were most common on the long haul boats. For example, the ILO survey showed that 16% of surveyed workers on long haul boats were deceived or coerced into working on boats against their will, compared to only about 3% among short haul workers [12, p. 46]. Some 25% of long haul workers, and 15% of short haul workers, reported that they were not working willingly. The most common means of coercion was economic, or the withholding of wages, but a significant proportion (3% overall, and 5% of workers from Myanmar) reported violence and threat of violence. This survey most likely underestimated coercive retention of workers because it would not have had the opportunity to interview captive workers, and because it under-sampled long haul workers. There have also been reports of witnessed executions of fellow workers as a method of enforcing compliance [8], [11, p. 25] and [22]. This situation is enabled, in part, because employers can easily evade regulation given the informal nature of recruitment [14], the distance ships travel especially in the long haul sector, and the limited time workers spend off-shore [23].

Workers experience significant debt to pay for brokers, travel, documentation, and so on, which results in a form of bonded labour [20]. For example, according to the ILO survey about 70% of respondents paid broker fees upfront [12, p. 49] but we can expect that most of these workers borrowed money from other sources [19] to make this payment. About one quarter of surveyed respondents indicated that monthly wages were being deducted to pay debts to brokers: these workers are effectively bonded to their employers. Importantly, what the ILO survey also demonstrates is that a range of working conditions exist, as not all workers reported coercion, underpayment, or serious abuse.

Information on the significance of unfree labour and labour abuse in the fisheries has been emerging over the past five years through a series of reports written by international organisations in collaboration with local NGOs (e.g., [10-12]). The key organisation for drawing international attention to labour issues in the fisheries sector in Thailand has been the Environmental Justice

3 Precise estimates of stock declines are made difficult by the biological complexity of the fishery and the challenges of assessing natural productivity [21]; however the Thai Department of Fisheries estimates that the catch per unit effort (CUPE) in the Gulf of Thailand has declined by 97% between 1961 and 2006 [22].

Foundation (EJF), which has published a series of hard-hitting reports on human trafficking and labour abuse starting in 2013 with its Sold to the Sea report.

While the initial EJF reports obtained some media coverage, it was the 2014 Guardian article that led to the intense media coverage globally. Specifically the Guardian journalists showed how off-shore fishing boats that abused and held workers as captives sold trash fish to processors, which was subsequently used to feed farmed shrimp exported by major Thai companies, including the Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand (CP). CP accounts for 10 percent of Thailand's shrimp exports, with customers including retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco, and Carrefour. CP and some other Thai companies (prominently, Thai Union) swiftly responded, promising to ensure that their supply chains did not involve slave labour or other labour abuses [24].

Media coverage has been sustained with more details emerging concerning labour abuse in the seafood sector in Thailand. In March 2015 an Associated Press (AP) investigation documented for a global audience the living conditions of over 300 migrant workers brought by Thai fishing boats to the Indonesian island of Benjina, where they were held captive while onshore [25]. From May to July 2015 the slave labour and trafficking controversies were linked to the widely publicised plight of Rohingya refugees fleeing anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. Although some local activists suggest very few if any Rohingya actually ended up working on Thai fishing boats, the international media nevertheless linked the Rohingya to the fishing sector through the common theme of human trafficking (e.g., [14] and [26]). In July 2015 the New York Times published its research linking fish caught by 'sea slaves' on boats operating out of Thailand to pet food sold in the United States [27]. In November 2015 Nestlé admitted that labour abuse was found in its pet food supply chains after it contracted the non-profit organisation Verité to look into working conditions of fish workers in Thailand [27-29]. These international reports garnered global attention, while drawing on the research and findings of civil society groups in Thailand who are active in assisting migrant workers in situations of captivity or serious abuse.

Northern supermarkets and other buyers have reacted to these stories in the media with repeated commitments to ensuring that their Thailand-based supply chains were not tainted by these sorts of practices [8] and [30]. The European Union has meanwhile issued a 'yellow' card to Thailand under their programme to block seafood imports from 1UU fisheries, and has included labour abuse as an issue that needs to be addressed under this policy (interviews in Thailand). The United States, meanwhile, downgraded Thailand to its lowest level, Tier 3, in its 2014 annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, citing the investigations into trafficking in the fishing industry, and it left Thailand at Tier 3 in the subsequent 2015 report [31-33]. At least in Southeast Asia, fisheries have displaced sex work as the main sector of concern among organisations whose mandate it is to combat trafficking.

2.2. Global perspectives on fisheries work

Although most recent media stories have focused on Thailand, unfree labour and labour abuses in fisheries can be found around the world. Both the Environmental Justice Foundation's 'Seafood not Slavefood' campaign and Couper et al.'s [17] recent book on this topic provides global examples. The broader significance of the Thai case lies in how it has helped spark greater attention to labour practices in off-shore fisheries around the world, and specific attention to the growing use of migrant workers who are often less than free and subject to abuse. These labour practices are embedded in a set of broader processes involving pressure to reduce costs in a globalising fishing industry, and in many places,

declining catches due to overexploitation combined with rising fixed costs such as fuel, maintenance and so on [17, p. 122]. Recruiting comparatively low paid and vulnerable migrant workers provides owners and captains a means for reducing labour costs in the face of this squeeze.

In this journal, Simmons and Stringer [6] have observed that while exploitative labour conditions in the fisheries are often associated with IUU fishing vessels, there are also significant labour challenges aboard vessels fishing legally in New Zealand's waters, despite the fact that New Zealand is considered a world leader in fisheries management. In November 2015, a Guardian article on Irish fisheries presented similar stories of bonded labour, brokers, and debt, involving migrants from Africa and Asia; the story mentions that these practices had spread from Scotland. The stories about individual workers in this article echoed the individual stories of fisheries worker elicited by the media and NGOs in Thailand regarding the nature of the abuse: long working hours, lack of rest, cheating on wages, insufficient food and more. The Guardian article specifically argued that these stories should be framed as trafficking [34]:

"He appears to be a victim of human trafficking, a criminal offence - defined as a form of modern slavery in the UK and Ireland - that involves the movement of people for exploitation. Whether the person consented to the journey is not relevant: key factors can include whether they were deceived, or their vulnerability or rights abused; how far they were controlled; and whether working and living conditions amount to exploitation."

Media accounts of unfree labour in the fishing industry almost always invoke the language of slavery and trafficking, often drawing on the ILO definition of trafficking [6, p. 75-76] which links it to forced labour. The ILO defines forced labour as "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily".4 This framing can be contrasted with academic research on labour migration in Southeast Asia that questions the idea that we can clearly distinguish between situations where workers are forced to accept restrictions on mobility, and situations where workers voluntarily agree to these restrictions in order to obtain employment.

2.3. Migration research in Southeast Asia

Migration scholars often argue that human trafficking needs to be reframed as a labour migration issue, in which workers should be positioned not as trafficked victims but as a labour migrants who need improved working conditions [36] and [37]. This argument has been made primarily in relation to sex work [38] and [39] but also extends to other sectors where unfree or bonded labour is prevalent. A trafficking framework, according to migration scholars, does not account for the wide variety of situations of migrant workers, nor does it account for the agency of workers as they seek to better their working conditions [36, p. 88]. Instead, a trafficking framework divides migrants into mutually exclusive categories (trafficked or not trafficked) that do not neatly fit the reality of their experiences [40]. The language of 'forced labour', and especially that of "slavery" similarly views migrants as victims in need of rescue, rather than as agents. It also does not consider the broader conditions of migration that leads to forced labour—a comment that is particularly pertinent for the fisheries sector, where there is a need to move beyond moral panics about specific cases of extreme labour abuse, to thinking about how and why labour abuse has become so prevalent in the fishing industry

4 See Introduction to International Labour Standards. Conventions and Recommendations [35].


This broader critique of the trafficking framework is referenced by Derks [19] in her study based on interviews with men from Cambodia who worked in the fisheries in Thailand. Derks [19, p. 916] recommends an examination of processes of both mobilisation and immobilisation among workers, which better captures the inherently contradictory and fluid labour relations in the fishery. Derks goes on to detail how threats of extortion by police, and detention and deportation by the Thai government, particularly for migrants lacking full documentation as migrant workers, serve to limit migrant movements within port. This immobility increases dependence on captains, who can often make arrangements with police to protect workers against raids. Even in cases where migrants are registered, employers who invested in paying for the registration may hold onto such papers for a time period to ensure a worker does not leave his boat find work elsewhere [19, p. 296]. Many workers are further tied to specific boats because they are paid on a profit sharing basis after a fixed period that ranges from 12 to 30 months. While profit sharing arrangements have been a common practice in Southeast Asia for centuries [41, p. 278], this system was based on higher catch levels that what is obtained in today's highly depleted fisheries. In addition, the shift away from local workers who might be known to the captain, to highly marginalised migrant workers, has made it easier for captain to cheat workers.

Another dimension of mobility is the role of brokers, debt and bonded labour [15,36] and [42]. As we mentioned above, most workers find work through brokers or recruiters; workers are more likely to rely on brokers when they are relatively new and have not yet developed their own social networks in the ports [15] and [20]. Brokers are often former fishers who know how to organise the recruitment, transport and employment of migrant fisheries workers. To pay broker fees and other costs associated with migration, workers borrow money, typically from informal sources, including in their home villages. This creates a situation in which migrant workers do not want to return home unless they have at least generated enough income to pay off these debts [19]. This is an important reason why escaped or rescued workers may not want to be returned to their home villages.

Simmons and Stringer's [6] account of Indonesian workers on Korean owned boats operating in New Zealand waters describe many of the same practices for immobilizing, as does recent Guardian newspaper coverage of off-shore fisheries workers in Ireland mentioned above: fisheries workers obtain work through brokers, pay them a fee and then pay off the fee against wages. Simmons and Stringer [6] document how a group of workers in New Zealand, who left a boat citing severe abuse, did not want to return to Indonesia for fear that the broker (or agent) would confiscate family property against unpaid debts,

Understanding fishing work through the lens of migration

provides guidance for what sort of policies and practices might improve the situation of fishing workers. We do not suggest abandoning the language of trafficking, for both practical and legal reasons outlined below. We are less sure about the language of slavery. Although the jarring language of slavery has been effective in provoking international attention to labour issues in the fisheries sector in Thailand, it does not translate well in Thailand especially given the country's distinct history of slavery, where it had quite different meanings from how it was used in Britain and the United States [43]. The term is also too unequivocal to describe the complex situations of the majority of migrant workers who may not be 'slaves' but are experiencing some kind of immobility and abuse.

3. Responses to fisheries labour scandals

In the following section we draw further insights from the Thai case to assess how international and national policy responses can improve (or could potentially improve) the working conditions of workers in the fisheries sector in Thailand, and elsewhere. Table 1 provides a brief sketch of some key policy responses, their strengths and limitations, focusing specifically on anti-trafficking actions, EU policies to restrict imports of seafood from IUU fisheries, and buyer efforts to ensure that supply chains do not involve forced or illegal labour relations. We also pay attention to aspects of the Thai response, specifically updated government policy.

3.1. Anti-trafficking

An anti-trafficking approach is appropriate in extreme labour abuse cases, since this involves rescue and safe houses, which has been vital for some fish workers (see the EJF series). Anti-traf-ficking laws and policies have been a key resource for the main Thai NGO (the Human Rights and Development Foundation) that has provided legal representation for abused or trafficked workers, or pursued cases against employers and brokers participating in criminal trafficking of workers.

Where an anti-trafficking approach is less helpful, however, is in establishing worker rights, or in changing the broader situation that is creating opportunities for traffickers. Without these changes, arresting one set of traffickers will likely only create space for a new set of traffickers to move in and take their place, as happened in the case of horrific abuses in the Thai port of Kantang as documented by the EJF, and as described to us during interviews with civil society groups involved in that case. The trafficking frame by itself does not address broader labour migration problems, tends to position workers as victims or potential victims, and the brokers as criminal traffickers, in each case simplifying what are very complex processes that often do not fit these

Table 1

Key policy responses, assessing strengths and limitations.

Policy response


Limitations of this approach


Traceabilty and buyer action with respect to supply chains

Thai government policies

Forces people to pay attention; key for handling worse case scenarios.

Requires traceability; updates fisheries management practices; brings in ecology.

Large buyers have considerable leverage with both suppliers and government, and are also able to work with domestic civil society groups. Civil society partners are developing innovative approaches that might better identify labour abuses than simple inspections.

Can address ecological decline with recently updated fisheries policy; can address broader migration policies that produce vulnerabilities to abuse.

Does not directly address broader migrant labour policies.

Is focused on fisheries management, labour issues are an add-on. Does not directly address broader migrant labour policies. Influence can be limited to suppliers who sell to those buyers imposing requirements. Does not directly address broader migration policies.

Difficult to impose real change because of lack of coordination among relevant agencies, security fears and prejudice/xenophobia, 'self-interest among individual agencies', and inertia.

categories. For example, as we described above, simply positioning brokers as criminals does not allow for policy changes that would find ways of reducing worker vulnerabilities to brokers whose roles cannot easily be eliminated [36].

3.2. IUU enforcement

The European Union (EU) has developed a set of aggressive regulations to restrict imports of seafood produced by fisheries that are labelled as illegal, unreported and unregulated [44]. In April 2015 the EU issued a yellow card for Thailand, putting Thailand on formal notice for not taking sufficient measures in the fight against IUU fishing, warning that trade sanctions would be imposed within six months unless Thailand significantly reforms its fishery5. A significant proportion of Thailand's seafood exports go to Europe, so the threat of sanctions poses a serious risk to the industry [45] and [46].

In response the military government established the Command Centre for Combating Illegal Fishing (CCCIF) on May 1, 2015, using powers it had given itself through Article 44 of the interim constitution that came into force in July 2014. This article allows the government to issue orders that can override usual government laws and procedures if deemed necessary for national stability; it is very controversial because it is also being used to curtail academic and press freedoms in Thailand.6 The government assigned the Royal Thai Navy to operate this centre, reporting directly to the Prime Minister, and all other relevant government units were required to cooperate with the Navy. The CCCIF mandate includes inspections to check on mandatory registration of fishing boats, compliance with fisheries regulations such as those on fishing gear, and compliance with labour regulations. Reports in local newspapers indicate that many thousands of boats may have been forced to stop fishing—up to 8000 according to one report [48].

The government has also updated labour and migration regulations, and set up 'One Stop' migrant worker registration centres in the 22 coastal provinces specifically for fisheries workers, and 'Port-In Port-Out' fishing boat inspection centres along the coast7 [49]. The One Stop worker registration centres allowed workers to register (or be registered by employers) for two three-month periods. Additionally, the government issued a Ministerial Regulation specifically for labour protection in the fisheries, which included mandated minimum rest times of 10 h per 24 h, payment of minimum wages, written contracts and more.8

The intense controversies that have accompanied these policies, which included an attempted 'strike' by the industrial fishing boats, makes it clear that the threat of EU sanctions is forcing a reorganisation of Thailand's fisheries sector [51]. These changes have been welcomed by many groups in Thailand, including organisations of small-scale fishers who see any attempt to regulate and reduce the industrial fishing sector as benefitting them. At the same time, views among civil society groups on the effectiveness of these changes for improving working conditions has been mixed. On one hand, observers point to how improved regulation and monitoring of fishing sector will enable better monitoring of working conditions, while a reduced fishing fleet might also

5 When significant progress is observed, a country will be issued a green card such as the Philippines in April 2015. Conversely, Cambodia was issued a red card in November 2013, with all fisheries products being banned to the EU.

6 See for example: Benar News "University a Bastion of Freedom in Junta-Ruled Thailand, Professor Says" [47].

7 Based on an announcement Thai Embassy Mission of Thailand to the European Union ( bour-in-fishing-industry/) as well as interviews in Bangkok and various media stories.

8 See 'Ministerial Regulation concerning Thai Labour Protection in Sea Fishery

Work B.E. 2557' [50].

benefit workers indirectly in that any resulting improvement in catch could in theory enable higher wages for workers receiving profit-shares. Other observers, however, state that even the new stricter regulations are easy to evade. Compliance with regulations such as minimum rest times, not to mention wages and so on implies access to and communication with workers. Critics indicated that boat captains can ensure that their workers are not present during inspections, and even if they are present, language barriers would prevent any meaningful communication between workers and inspectors. Finally, the current response is enabled by the presence of a non-democratic government that is using its powers to override usual government procedures, leaving the long term sustainability of this approach open to question.

More generally, the European IUU regulations do not specify compliance with labour laws or regulations [52]. In Thailand, the controversies around worker abuse have effectively forced the question of labour into IUU policies. But addressing labour is not a necessary response for handling IUU, as can be seen in recent cases in Asia where yellow cards were lifted by the EU (e.g., in the Philippines or South Korea) [53]. Another challenge of the IUU approach is that it only applies to fish exported to the global North, in particular the European Union. Countries that have a lower dependency on exports are unlikely to take sectoral action: Cambodia, who has been red-carded by the EU, is an example of this.

3.3. Buyer supply chain requirement

Another significant international response to the labour controversies has involved large-scale buyers working to ensure that their seafood suppliers are not using trafficked, abused, or underage workers. There are two basic approaches for doing so: one is through third party certification, and the second is through direct regulation of suppliers, often by working through agencies or non-profit organisations who specialise in labour protection.

Our research in Thailand suggests that private third party certification for wild capture fisheries9 has very limited potential in the near term future; indeed, certification was not mentioned during any of our meetings with local civil society organisations. This should not be surprising given that first, the main wild caught fisheries certification scheme, that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), has not certified any fisheries in Thailand and is not likely to have a presence there in the near future; and in any case, it has excluded social standards from its programme.10 Friend of the Sea's Sustainable Seafood Programme does include social standards [55] and [56] including basic labour standards. Unlike the MSC, Friend of the Sea is active in Thailand, having certified one clam fishery, and 14 processing companies for Skipjack, Al-bacore, and Yellowfin tuna and clams. Even so, its coverage of the fisheries remains very limited.

The increasing direct involvement by buyers and their contracted non-profit partners is having a more immediate impact in Thailand. The international media reports linking seafood to 'slave labour' in Thailand have prompted buyers to act forcibly to protect

9 In contrast to the wild caught fisheries, private and government sustainability certification for farmed fish (aquaculture) are achieving widespread coverage in Thailand, as the sector directly exports most of its product to international buyers who are requiring these certifications. However, they do not currently include labour standards with respect to the fisheries that produce the trash fish that comprises a key ingredient in the feed for Thailand's shrimp farming sector [13]). A potential exception may be future certification under the Aquaculture Stewardship Council: its standards for feed are evolving and suppliers will need to conform to approved certification schemes which could potentially include labour standards. But as of the end of 2015, these developments to our knowledge were not relevant.

10 Although MSC has developed a separate policy that denies MSC certification to companies prosecuted for forced labour in the past two years (since the Thai labour scandal). See: "MSC Board Announces Clear Policy on Forced Labour" [54].

their reputations by seeking ways of ensuring that their supplies cannot be linked to these labour practices [57]. We can mention several notable initiatives. The first involves a group of major buyers (including Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury's, Walmart, and TESCO) who are working with the Thai-based NGO Issara on a pilot project in which migrant workers can call in complaints about working conditions on a twenty-four hour hotline (interviews). The data collected from this hotline enables Issara staff to tie worker complaints to specific fishing boats or onshore processing facilities, and these complaints are then taken to the employers and buyers, or to enforcement authorities where severe abuse is reported, as in the case of the Kantang port, as described in a recent EJF report11. This approach, they argue, is better than 'naming and shaming', as it allows factories, fishing companies, and buyers to work with Issara to systematically address the problems identified. They also argue that the approach is more effective than simply auditing or inspecting boats, where government inspectors are unlikely to identify violations of labour laws and regulations (see also Marx and Wouters [59] on the problems with auditing for labour standards in complex supply chains).

Issara is not the only organisation partnering with buyers to create or identify supply chains not tainted by labour abuse. For example, a group of seafood producers, major northern-based retailers, government units, and NGOs (including Oxfam, EJF, WWF, and others) set up the "Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force" in July 2014. The task force has undertaken a series of actions with respect to traceability and vessel monitoring, Fisheries Improvement Projects, and lobbying for legal changes to fisheries laws. The task force has also created a Feed Supply Chain Traceability Validation Programme, and will being a six-month review of this programme in early 2016.12

Because these programmes are just beginning, and because of corporate confidentiality, we do not have a lot of specific information on what these programmes have achieved. However, most observers in Thailand are optimistic that they are having or will have a significant impact, although there are also criticisms of some programmes for their exclusion of local civil society groups who are working directly with migrant workers.13 Even so, these programmes are also limited in important ways in terms of their potential to address broader labour problems in the fisheries sector in Thailand and internationally. These schemes potentially exclude fisheries oriented to buyers that do not demand compliance with labour standards, as well as fisheries in countries that do not export a significant part of their seafood production. Finally, like the enforcement approach of the CCCIF (above, Section 3.2), buyer-driven programmes14 do not directly address the underlying conditions that produce vulnerabilities, and the potential for traffickers to benefit from stepping in to supply labour to fishing boats as well as employers in other sectors.

3.4. Government action

The various limits to private sector or non-profit action that we mention above indicates that a broader government response to

11 In its End-of-Pilot Review, covering the period January 2014-June 2015, Is-sara noted that 3.8 million migrants received the hotline number and a total of 3237 calls were received (874% or 27% of which were related to the seafood industry) originating from 49 out of Thailand's 76 provinces [58, p. 9].

12 For further details, see loads/2015/05/SSSC-Task-Force_0verview-and-Progress_May-2015_Short_Master_ 180515-11.pdf

13 See "Migrant workers body concerned at exclusion from Thai labour task force" [60].

14 A caveat is that efforts like the task force mentioned above can work with or lobby government to change the broader policies that facilitate labour abuse, although the focus on shrimp will likely limit this impact.

labour abuse is crucial to addressing the conditions that facilitate labour abuse in the fisheries sector. Currently, international pressure from both importing governments and seafood buyers has forced a Thai government response that is specific to the fisheries sector. But it is unclear whether this government response is sustainable over the long run given its reliance on the rather draconian Article 44. Many observers in Thailand whom we interviewed also expressed scepticism about the suitability of Navy personnel for inspecting fishing boats for migrant labour relations as well as for compliance with rules and regulations that are normally under the mandate of other government agencies such as the Department of Fisheries. It is also questionable whether an enforcement approach can reach the very top of criminal networks that organise trafficking or forced labour [15] and [61]. Notably, the police officer in charge of Thailand's fish worker trafficking investigation recently fled to Australia where he plans to seek refugee status, saying he fears for his life.

Civil society groups in Thailand who work with migrants identify the following conditions as contributing to worker vulnerability (interviews): a lack of documents legalising their work in Thailand and/or various restrictions in the legal documents; workplace isolation (such as on boats or farms); a lack of Thai language ability necessary for obtaining assistance if a worker is in an abusive situation; lack of education; and specific gender-based vulnerabilities. Any long-term effort to address labour abuse in fisheries needs to take account of these conditions: these are the broader conditions of migration in Thailand, across many sectors.

As an example, Thai registration documents name the employer, to whom a worker is effectively tied if they want to remain legally registered (see also [62, p. 21]): workers cannot legally leave an employer unless they first prove the employer has abused them (which is very difficult for the vast majority of workers with no access to legal assistance). Activists argue that documents that would allow migrant workers to find work without restrictions would make a significant contribution to enabling them to avoid the worst employers. A key obstacle to enacting these sorts of policies, however, is that the government in Thailand sees the presence of large numbers of migrant workers from neighbouring countries (and from Myanmar in particular given historical animosities) as a security threat [62, p. 8]. This has been especially the case since the military took power following the 2014 coup d'état. For example, the police and other government agencies see the legal ties to employers as a way of using employers to help control 'foreign' workers (interviews). The ILO considers this concern with security as partly responsible for the highly complex and expensive registration process under MOUs with neighbouring countries for managing migration, which has resulted in the vast majority of migrant workers simply avoiding the process, creating a very large 'irregular' migrant population in Thailand. Many have registered temporarily in 'one stop' centres created by the military government to try to address situation, but they often fail to maintain registration due to expensive requirements to report every three months.

Government policies towards migrant workers create many of the vulnerabilities for migrant workers [42] and, opportunities for traffickers or brokers. These vulnerabilities need to be addressed through changes in migration management that enable migrants to easily register, change employers, and reduces the role of brokers. One can imagine other innovative programmes—for example, making credit available from formal sources might enable workers to free themselves from the restrictions that accompany informal debt relations. Meaningful migrant worker reform needs to account for migrants' hopes and aspirations [42], and enable them to act to obtain safe and well remunerated work.

4. Moving forward

The current scandals about slave labour in the fisheries in Thailand needs to be located in increasing reliance on marginalised migrant workers, not just in Thailand, but in industrialised fisheries globally. Migrant workers are recruited in ways that often render them highly vulnerable to labour abuses. This means that addressing the conditions that create vulnerabilities of migrant workers should be front and centre of any fisheries-sector policy reform, with enforcement as a backup where broader policies fail to reign in trafficking. While stronger enforcement against traffickers and abusive employers who do not follow international or national labour standards and laws are important, effective long-term action depends on enabling migrant workers to improve their working conditions. In other words, workers should be positioned as active agents looking for good working conditions, not just as victims of slavery and trafficking.

International responses, including IUU enforcement and buyer requirements concerning labour standards, can make a difference for many fisheries workers, and it is possible that these improvements could also positively impact fisheries workers not included in the supply chains subject to these regulations. But we have shown that each of these approaches are also limited with respect to addressing the underlying conditions that produce labour abuse. IUU is limited because labour relations are an add-on, and because it can only be leveraged where fisheries are particularly dependent on exports to the EU. Private sector action by corporate buyers and NGO partners are similarly limited in that this approach will likely produce export-oriented enclaves with improved labour relations, while the majority of the fisheries and fish workers may not be affected—unless the private sector takes on lobbying government for broader changes in migration management.

This review of the migration literature highlights the complexity of processes leading to labour abuse, and argues that there cannot be one clear, easy fix. Improvements will take a concerted effort that engages government migration policies, but also involves those who can pressure government as well as demand appropriate labour relations in their supply chains. The development process for such policies also needs to involve local civil society organisations who are most aware of the situation on the ground, and ideally incorporate organised labour movements, although hired workers are currently not organised in most Asian countries. Key to any initiative is to connect definitions of international conventions and national laws to migrants' own understanding of fairness and dignity [42, p. 236].

In concluding, it is worth noting that in Thailand and many other countries, labour abuse and unfree labour is partly the results of overfishing and the need to compete in a global market for seafood. Policies that reduce fishing effort by reducing the industrial fishing fleet (such as the IUU policy) would also indirectly reduce pressure to treat workers as a variable cost that can be squeezed. An indirect benefit would also be to enhance the still vigorous small-scale fisheries sector, that provides more employment and local benefits than the large-scale fishing sector, and is more oriented to domestic markets.


This paper has been written as part of the research programme New Directions in Environmental Governance. We thank team members Dr. Simon Bush, Dr. Derek Hall, Courtney Kehoe and Yavanna Puts for their discussions and insights. Courtney Kehoe provided invaluable assistance with data management, analysis,

and field research. In Thailand, we thank those individuals in civil society organisations who generously took the time to meet with one of the authors, to provide insights into fisheries and migrant work that have been incorporated into this paper. We also thank anonymous reviewers for their comments. The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support provided by Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).


[1] D. Ferrol-Schulte, M. Wolff, S. Ferse, M. Glaser, Sustainable Livelihoods Approach in tropical coastal and marine social-ecological systems: a review, Mar. Policy 42 (2013) 253-258.

[2] M. Marschke, G. Betcherman, Vietnam's seafood boom: economic growth with impoverishment? Environ. Dev. Sustain. (2015) 1-22.

[3] M. Bailey, S.R. Bush, A. Miller, M. Kochen, The role of traceability in transforming seafood governance in the global South, Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 18 (2016) 25-32.

[4] P. Zhang, M. Zhao, Maritime Labour policy in China: restructuring under the ILO's Maritime Labour Convention 2006, Mar. Policy 50 (Part A) (2014) 111-116.

[5] P. Zhang, M. Zhao, Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 and the Chinese seafarers: how far is China to ratification? Mar. Policy 61 (2015) 54-65.

[6] G. Simmons, C. Stringer, New Zealand's fisheries management system: forced labour an ignored or overlooked dimension? Mar. Policy 50 (2014) 74-80.

[7] M. Hara, Crew members in South Africa's squid industry; whether they have benefitted from transformation and governance reforms, Mar. Policy 33 (3)

(2009) 513-519.

[8] K. Hodal, C.K. in Songkhla, F. Lawrence, Revealed: Asian Slave Labour Producing Prawns for Supermarkets in US, UK, the Guardian, Songkhla, Thailand, London, UK, 2014.

[9] K. Fujita, T. Endo, I. Okamoto, Y. Nakanishi, M. Yamada, Myanmar Migrant Laborers in Ranong, Thailand, Institute of Developing Economies, Chiba, Japan

(2010), p. 257 (JETRO, Discussion Paper No).

10] P. Robertson, From the Tiger to the Crocodile: Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand, Human Rights Watch, New York, NY, 2010.

11] IOM, Trafficking of Fishermen in Thailand, International Organization for Migration, Bangkok, Thailand, 2011.

12] ILO, Employment Practices and Working Conditions in Thailand's Fishing Sector, Ed., International Labour Organization, Bangkok, 2013.

13] EJF, Sold to the Sea-Human Trafficking in Thailand's Fishing Industry, Environmental Justice Foundation, London, 2013.

14] EJF, Slavery at Sea: The Continued Plight of Trafficked Migrants in Thailand's Fishing Industry, Environmental Justice Foundation, London, 2014.

15] EJF, Thailand's Seafood Slaves: Human Trafficking, Slavery and Murder in Kantang's Fishing Industry, Environmental Justice Foundation, London, 2015.

16] C. Béné, B. Hersoug, E.H. Allison, Not by rent alone: analysing the pro-poor functions of small-scale fisheries in developing countries, Dev. Policy Rev. 28 (3) (2010) 325-358.

17] A. Couper, H.D. Smith, B. Ciceri, Fishers and Plunderers: Theft, Slavery and Violence at Sea, Pluto Press, London, 2015.

18] J.G. Butcher, The Closing of the Frontier: A History of the Marine Fisheries of Southeast Asia c. 1850-2000, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2004.

19] A. Derks, Migrant labour and the politics of immobilisation: cambodian fishermen in Thailand, Asian J. Soc. Sci. 38 (6) (2010) 915-932.

20] A. Derks, Bonded labour in Southeast Asia: introduction, Asian J. Soc. Sci. 38 (6) (2010) 839-852.

21] R.I. Arthur, R.M. Friend, Inland capture fisheries in the Mekong and their place and potential within food-led regional development, Glob. Environ. Chang. 21 (1)(2011)219-226.

22] EJF, Pirates and Slaves: How Overfishing in Thailand Fuels Human Trafficking and the Plundering of Our Oceans, Environmental Justice Foundation, London, 2015.

23] I. Urbina, Tricked and Indebted on Land, Abused or Abandoned at Sea, The New York Times, 2015.

24] Associated Press, Thai Union Frozen Cuts Supplier After Fishing Slavery Report, Bangkok Post, 2015.

25] R. McDowell, M. Mason, More than 300 Slave Fishermen now Safe on Indonesian Island, Yahoo News, 2015.

26] E. Stoakes, C.K. Ranong, A. Kelly, Sold from a Jungle Camp to Thailand's Fishing Industry: 'I saw 13 People Di, The Guardian, 2015.

27] I. Urbina, Sea Slaves': The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock, The New York Times, 2015.

28] M. Mendoza, Nestlé Admits Slavery and Coercion used in Catching its Seafood, CBC, 2015.

29] Verité, "AVerité Assessment of Recruitment Practices and Migrant Labor Conditions in Nestlé's Thai Shrimp Supply Chain." Nov-2015.

30] K. Hodal, Thailand Failing to Tackle Fishing Industry Slavery, Says Rights Group, The Guardian, 2015.

31] TiP, Trafficking in Persons Report 2014, Department of State, USA, 2014.

[32] TiP, Trafficking in Persons Report 2015, Department of State, USA, 2015.

[33] EJF, Broken Promises: Why Thailand Should Stay on Tier 3 in the 2015 US Trafficking in Persons Report, Environmental Justice Foundation, London, 2015.

[34] F. Lawrence, E. McSweeney, A. Kelly, M. Heywood, D. Susman, C. Kelly,

J. Domokos, Revealed: Trafficked Migrant Workers Abused in Irish Fishing Industry, The Guardian, 2015.

[35] ILO, "Introduction to International Labor Standards. Conventions and Recommendations," International Labor Organization. [Online]. Available: ( (Accessed: 26.08.15).

[36] D. Bélanger, Labor migration and trafficking among Vietnamese migrants in Asia, Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Sci. 653 (1) (2014) 87-106.

[37] K. Kempadoo, J. Sanghera, B. Pattanaik, Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights, 2nd ed., Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO, 2012.

[38] R. Weitzer, The social construction of sex trafficking: ideology and in-stitutionalization of a moral crusade, Polit. Soc. 35 (3) (2007) 447-475.

[39] R. Weitzer, Human trafficking and contemporary slavery,, 41 (2015) 223-242.

[40] J. Tigno, Agency by proxy: women and the human trafficking discourse in the Philippines, in: M. Ford, L. Lyons, W. van Schendel (Eds.), Labour Migration and Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia, Routledge, London, 2012, pp. 23-40.

[41] J.M. Acheson, Anthropology of fishing, Annu. Rev. Anthropol. (1981) 275-316.

[42] A. Derks, Human rights and (im)mobility: migrants and the state in Thailand, J. Soc. 1ssues Southeast Asia 28 (2) (2013) 216.

[43] A. Turton, Thai institutions of slavery, in: J.L. Watson (Ed.), Asian and African Systems of Slavery, Blackwell, Oxford, 1980, pp. 251-292.

[44] G. Pramod, K. Nakamura, T.J. Pitcher, L. Delagran, Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA, Mar. Policy 48 (2014) 102-113.

[45] A. Siriprasertchok, Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishery: an urgent problem of Thailand, Int. J. Public Priv. Manag. 2 (1) (2015) 35-42.

[46] Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, "State of Play: Thailand's Fight Against IUU Fishing and Trafficking in Persons (TIP)," Brussels, Nov. 2015.

[47] U. Satitpanyapan, University a Bastion of Freedom in Junta-Ruled Thailand, Professor Says, Benar News, 2015.

[48] P. Pratruangkrai, Over 8000 1llegal Boats Forced to Stop Fishing, The Nation, 2015.

[49] Social Affairs Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, "Updates on Thailand's Protection of Labor in Fishing Industry," Royal Thai Embassy to Belgium and Luxembourg. Mission of Thailand to the European Union, 01-Jul-2015. [Online]. Available: < lands-protection-of-labour-in-fishing-industry/>. (Accessed: 03.01.16).

[50] Minister of Labour, Thailand, Ministerial Regulation concerning Thai Labour Protection in Sea Fishery Work B.E. 2557 (2014). 2014.

Thai Fishermen Strike in 22 out of 76 Provinces over New Regulations, Chiangrai Times, 01-Jul-2015.

[52] J. Le Fevre, Thailand Seafood 'Yellow Card' About Compliance, Not Labour Abuse, The Establishment Post, 2015.

[53] European Commission, "Press Release-EU Acts on Illegal Fishing: Yellow Card Issued to Thailand While South Korea & Philippines are Cleared," European Commission Press Release Database, 21-Apr-2015. [Online]. Available: <http://>. (Accessed: 26.08.15).

[54] MSC, MSC Board Announces Clear Policy on Forced Labour, Marine Stewardship Council, 2014.

[55] FOS, Friend of the Sea Standard, FOS-wild-generic sustainable fishing requirements, Friend of the Sea, 2013.

[56] E. Blackmore, H. Norbury, E. Mohammed Yassin, S. Cavicchi Bartolini, R. Wakeford, What's the Catch? Lessons from and Prospects for Marine Stewardship Council Certification in Developing Countries, llED, London, 2015.

[57] A. Kelly, Supermarket Giants in Thailand for Prawn Slavery Talks, The Guardian, 2014.

[58] Issara, End-of-Pilot Review, Project Issara, 2015.

[59] A. Marx, J. Wouters, Supply Chains and the Private Governance of Labour Rights, ECDPM Gt. lnsights, 2013.

[60] N. Ramsden, Migrant Workers Body Concerned at Exclusion from Thai Labor Task Force, Undercurrent News, 25-May-2015. [Online]. Available: <https://>. (Accessed: 08.01.16).

[61] M. Davis, Top Thai Policeman Seeks Political Asylum in Australia, Fears for Life, ABC News, 2015.

[62] ILO, Review of the Effectiveness of the MOUs in Managing Labour Migration between Thailand and Neighbouring Countries, lnternational Labour Organization Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand, 2015.