Thailand scrambles to reform seafood industry

Thailand is facing massive economic losses if it cannot export to the EU. Source: Wikimedia

Bangkok has registered more than 70,000 undocumented foreign workers in its fishing industry, the Thai navy said in a bid by the ruling generals to stop a seafood export ban.

Navy, fisheries and labour officials claimed their efforts to tackle illegal practices were yielding results.

“It’s a national agenda, and the Thai prime minister has stressed that he has zero tolerance on this issue,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sek Wannamethee.

The junta has claimed that documenting foreign workers, many of whom enter Thailand from Myanmar and Cambodia illegally and are easily exploited, will help abuse which has been internationally labelled as slavery.

Thailand, as the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood, is being asked to end illegal overfishing and a reliance on low-paid trafficked workers from its impoverished neighbours.

Of an estimated 200,000 undocumented foreigners are working in the Thai seafood industry but now 70,000 had been registered, said Commander Piyanan Kawmanee of the naval task force leading the initiative.

The Thai authorities are under intense international pressure to reform the lucrative fishing sector.

He said: “Around 50,000 were working in [fish] processing plants, the rest on fishing vessels.”

Those who had been documented would be allowed to continue working for at least two years, officials said.

“We are confident that thanks to the laws and regulations passed last year we have the tools to ensure that no under age or forced labour will occur in our processing factories, as well as fishing vessels,” said Arrug Phrommanee, director-general of the Ministry of Labour.

Bangkok is claiming that in excess of 8,000 fishing vessels had seen their registrations revoked in the last 12 months.

Last year, the European Union issued a “yellow card” warning, threatening to ban all Thai seafood unless Bangkok tackled rampant illegal fishing and labour abuses in its waters and processing factories.

EU inspectors visited Thailand last month to rule on whether the ban goes ahead. A ban on exports to the EU could remove US$1 billion from the flagging Thai economy.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-O-Cha has struggled to stimulate the kingdom’s faltering economy and as international capital has deserted an increasingly repressive nation as there seems no end in sight to the political crisis that has dominated the domestic scene since 2006.

The generals point to the failure of successive civilian governments to end systemic problems within the fishing and aviation sectors. Thailand’s aviation industry is facing regulatory sanctions over poor safety procedures.

“During civilian administrations… sometimes we couldn’t enforce efficiently,” said Vice-Admiral Jumpol Lumpiganon. He said the EU’s yellow card was being used by the junta to push for seafood industry reforms.