EU and Nestlé mount pressure on Thai fishing slavery

The appalling practises of the Thai fishing industry are increasingly under the spotlight. Source: Flickr

Thai police claim more than 100 people have been arrested in a crackdown on human trafficking since the European Union threatened to boycott Thai fish over the issue, as food giant Nestlé admits it has been supplied by slave labour.

The EU’s “yellow card” warning last April threatened to ban all seafood exports unless the Thai junta tackled illegal fishing and labour abuses in its waters.

An EU delegation visited Thailand last month to assess progress and mull a boycott that could cost the Thai economy US$1 billion a year.

Thailand is the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood, which human rights activists say is achieved through overfishing and exploitation of low-paid trafficked workers, largely from Myanmar and Cambodia.

Police insist they have ramped up regulation but activists claim the authorities merely target low-level operatives.

There had been more than 100 arrests over labour abuses and trafficking and around 130 labourers freed from vessels and factories, according to police figures.

“These cases show that Thailand has a strong political will to deal with the issue of human trafficking,” announced police spokesman Colonel Krisana Pattanacharoen.

Human rights groups accuse Thailand of allowing people trafficking to prosper in exchange for bribes.

Survivors freed from Thai fishing fleets tell of gruesome working conditions, beatings and murder at sea.

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a British NGO working with Bangkok to address this issue, said improved fishing legislation had been passed.

EJF’s executive director Steven Trent: “A very simple benchmark for real progress will be when you start seeing senior Thai figures in courts going through a process of a successful prosecution for their role.”

Thailand later this year will have its anti-trafficking efforts assessed by Washington, which has rated Thailand with the worst-possible grade in an annual trafficking report two years in a row.

Last November Nestlé, the world’s largest food manufacturer and one of the most recognisable household brands, admitted it found forced labour in its supply chains in Thailand among unpaid and abused migrant workers.

By disclosing that Nestlé customers had unwittingly bought products produced with the worst labour abuses, the company said it was self-policing its supply chains.

A yearlong internal investigation reported that Thai seafood was riddled with forced labour and human trafficking and that slave labourers produced Fancy Feast cat food.

Nestlé said that no other firm buying Thai seafood could avoid being exposed to the same risks.

“As we’ve said consistently, forced labour and human rights abuses have no place in our supply chain,” said Magdi Batato of Nestlé operations. “Nestlé believes that by working with suppliers we can make a positive difference to the sourcing of ingredients.”

Nick Grono, CEO of NGO the Freedom Fund, which studied the Thai fishing industry, said Nestlé’s might have a significant impact.

“Nestlé’s decision to conduct this investigation is to be applauded,” he said. “If you’ve got one of the biggest brands in the world proactively coming out and admitting that they have found slavery in their business operations, then it’s potentially a huge game-changer and could lead to real and sustained change in how supply chains are managed.”