awful things

A New Report Says Thai Seafood Is Still Being Caught by Slaves

Awful work conditions are reportedly still “widespread.” Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Human Rights Watch issued a new report today arguing, in essence, that Thailand has made no reforms to its seafood industry, despite the grievous human-rights abuses first exposed nearly four years ago. After doing two years’ worth of interviews with 248 fishermen, the group blasts the Thai government’s response as a “theatrical exercise” that’s amounted to “cosmetic” fixes, not the actual steps necessary “to end forced labor and other serious abuses on fishing boats.”

The report does note “positive steps forward,” but as the group’s Asia director, Brad Adams, explains, “Forced labor is routine. The workers we interviewed described being trafficked on to ships, trapped in jobs they couldn’t leave, physical abuse, lack of food, long hours and awful working conditions. The worst thing for many of them was not being paid — the psychological harm and final indignity was the hardest to bear.”

Back in 2014 and 2015, journalists at the Guardian, the AP, and the New York Times all ran separate investigations into the horrible mistreatment of workers in Thailand’s billion-dollar fishing industry. (In short, it was so pervasive that the odds of finding frozen supermarket shrimp not affected by slave labor were soul-crushingly low.) In response, the industry’s big players created something called the Sustainable Seafood Task Force: Everyone from Walmart and Costco to large seafood producers like Thai Union Group joined, with the goal of ensuring that conditions and wages improved for fishermen. In an interview in today’s Guardian, the head of the Environmental Justice Foundation, a group working on reforms with the Thai government, says, “Never in my career have I seen a process more focused on talking in hotel rooms in Bangkok rather than actually committing to using their influence to create real change.” He goes as far as challenging even one big seafood company to come forward and “guarantee that products from Thailand are free from human rights abuses and illegal fishing.”

When these revelations first became public, the Thai government passed laws regulating the industry’s work conditions, and agreed to step up boat inspections as well as limit fishing trips to 30 days at sea. However, Human Rights Watch says that in the Thai government’s 2015 report, it inspected boats with 474,334 fishermen and “failed, astonishingly, to identify a single case of forced labor.” Activists are once again asking seafood companies to exert pressure on their suppliers: “They have arguably more power than anyone else, and they are failing to use it.”

New Report Says Thai Seafood Is Still Being Caught by Slaves