Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, behind China and Norway. Every year, the Thai fishing fleet finds itself short by tens of thousands of hands, so human traffickers help boat captains fill that gap by kidnapping men from Thailand or luring men from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cambodia onto boats with false promises.
Once aboard, the workers toil for years in horrific, extremely dangerous conditions, including 20-hour workdays, homogenous diets of scrap or “trash” fish, cramped quarters, and physical and mental abuse. Captains have been reported use methamphetamines to keep fishermen working and violence is common. Some never see land for years.
Only one in six Thai fishing boats is registered—the rest operate as a “ghost fleet”, coming into port and leaving without registering their presence or their workers with authorities.
In 2014, in response to pressure from NGOs including Green America, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to “tier 3,” or the worst level, in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. This downgrade sent a strong message to the Thai government to end the corruption that allows human trafficking to persist.
Recently, the Thai government proposed a scheme to supply prison laborers to fishing boats—a plan that would replace one vulnerable population (migrants) with another (prisoners) and would do nothing to prevent human rights abuses. In January 2015, Green America and our allies were quick to oppose this plan in the press, and the Thai government has stated it will not move forward.
The Thai government is not the only actor that bears responsibility for labor abuse in the country’s fishing sector. Global seafood companies profit tremendously from cheap labor and lax regulation in Thailand. In 2014, the Guardian connected the “trash fish” used to feed shrimp sold in Costco and Walmart to slave labor.
Learn more about Thailand’s “Ghost Fleet” in our Spring 2015 Green American Magazine.
Over the past decade, global awareness of overfishing has grown, and in response, a number of standards and certification bodies have been developed to ensure the world doesn’t fish the ocean empty. However, there is still work to be done with seafood companies and certifiers to address human rights issues in production, not only environmental problems.
Here are some labels you are likely to encounter at the grocery store and what they mean:
Fair Trade USA is the first certification that addresses both environmental and labor issues with its standard for wild-capture fish from small-scale fisheries. Fair Trade Tuna from Indonesia will be available at Safeways in Northern California, Portland, and Seattle starting in March 2015.
Standard for sustainable marine-caught fisheries.
Standard for sustainable fish farms
The MSC and ASC standards help ensure fish was caught or farmed in a sustainable way. These standards focus primarily on ecological issues, such as preventing overfishing, minimizing the environmental impact of a fishing operation, and monitoring waste water and genetic diversity. These standards do not focus on human rights issues; however, they do require certified partners to follow local labor laws. At present, neither MSC nor ASC has certified any fishing operation in Thailand.
BAP certification focuses on the sustainability of fish farms, as well as hatcheries and processing facilities. The BAP standard includes provisions for both environmental and human rights issues. BAP has certified hundreds of fishing operations throughout Asia, Australia, the US and Mexico, and South America.
Sign our petition demanding that Costco source from only sustainable and socially responsible fisheries and fish farms, and trace its shrimp down to the boat level, including the boats catching “trash-fish” used as feed on fish farms.