Employment practices and working conditions in Thailand’s fishing sector

Employment practices and working conditions in Thailand’s fishing sector

Employment practices and working conditions in Thailand’s fishing sector

Executive Summary


The commercial fishing industry plays an important role in Thailand’s social and economic development. Benefitting from a long and fertile coastal area stretching 2,700 km, Thailand’s fishing sector experienced remarkable growth over the course of the last four decades due to the deployment of new fishing gear and technologies, expansion into new fishing grounds, improvements to fishing vessels, and development of facilities and infrastructure (Panjarat, 2008). In 1999, Thailand became the world’s leading exporter of edible fisheries products (FAO, 2009). The total value of fish exports is ranked third globally after only China and Norway, constituting a US$7 billion industry (FAO, 2012b, p. 71).

However, there are limitations in the regulation of the industry, because of a dated legislative framework, unclear and inadequate delineation of territorial jurisdictions, and insufficient resources and capacities for authorities to effectively carry out their mandates. As a result, the industry has over-exploited marine resources and has been implicated in widespread exploitation and abuse of workers, including forced labour and human trafficking.

Since the late 1980s, the industry has seen dramatic changes in the structure of employment and working conditions. The Thai workforce has been less attracted to work in the fishing sector due to a major natural disaster in 1989, declining profits (due to a sharp decrease in the Catch Per Unit of Effort (CPUE), as well as rising fuel costs) (Panjarat, 2008) and rising education levels. This gap in the labour market emerged simultaneously with expanding structural differences in population demographics and economic development between Thailand and its neighbours, transforming the fishing industry’s labour force from exclusively Thai crews to primarily irregular migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia.

Even with its heavy reliance on undocumented migrant workers, Thailand’s fishing industry has been unable to satisfy its demand for fishers. In 2008, the Federation of Thai Industries estimated a shortage of 10,000 workers in the fishing and fish processing industries (Mirror Foundation, 2011). In 2012, the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT) estimated that 50,000 fishers were required to address the shortages in the sector. With large profits to be made from seafood export markets and sizeable investments in vessels and equipment, boat owners do not want their boats sitting idly in port. Despite the reduced growth of the industry over the last decade due to smaller catch sizes and higher fuel prices, the demand for labour remains high. Meanwhile, there is an insufficient supply of workers willing to accept work on fishing boats because of the pay and working conditions. The shortage is a key factor leading to deceptive and coercive labour practices, and even forced labour and human trafficking within the sector.

The frequent reports of fishers being exploited in recruitment and employment has led to increased pressure from the international community, retailers and consumer groups to strengthen regulation of the sector. However, the true scale of the problem was unknown. Because of the challenges in conducting research in the fishing sector, most of the information collected has been from a small sample and qualitative in nature. Additional empirical data was required to obtain a broader understanding of recruitment and employment practices in the industry, and to put forward recommendations to address some of the vulnerabilities of fishers – in the areas of migration, recruitment and labour protection policies and practices.

To address this gap, the International Labour Organization (ILO) commissioned the Asian Research Center for Migration (ARCM) to conduct a large-scale quantitative survey of employment practices and working conditions within the commercial fishing sector in four coastal provinces of Thailand. The survey has been carried out in consultation with the Ministry of Labour, the Department of Fisheries, the NFAT, the Thailand Overseas Fishing Association (TOFA), and other relevant government departments and civil society organizations. The survey was conducted among a stratified sample of almost 600 fishers employed on Thai boats fishing in national and international waters. The results were supplemented and triangulated with qualitative and quantitative data collected from key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and secondary sources.

Although the study was conducted among a substantial sample of fishers in Thailand, the results cannot be considered fully representative given their still relatively small size compared to the sector as a whole and the non-probability sampling methodology applied. In addition, as the sample was collected through interviewing fishers onshore, it does not fully capture the experience of fishers trapped in exploitive working conditions at sea where they are thought to be more prevalent. However, as the largest survey conducted on this subject to date, it does provide a number of valuable insights into the situation of fishers and the industry more broadly, from which the Royal Thai Government, employers’ and workers’ representatives can draw from in order to strengthen laws, policies and practices.

Profile of fishers

Of the fishers surveyed, the vast majority were migrants. Cambodians made up the majority of respondents in Rayong and Songkhla provinces, and Myanmar migrants were the bulk of respondents in Ranong and Samut Sakhon provinces.

Government figures show that only a fraction of fishers have work permits or have entered the regularization process. Among the sample, only one of the migrant fishers reported having a work permit, and two-thirds had no documentation whatsoever or had obtained a local document which had no legal standing. The remainder reported having entered the regularization process.

Over 80 percent of the respondents were short-haul fishers (at sea for less than one month), as long-haul fishers (at sea for more than one month) obviously spend less time onshore. Nearly two-thirds (63.7 percent) of the short-haul fishers worked on purse seine net boats, and nearly half of the long-haul fishers worked on single or twin-trawlers. For 87.8 percent of the respondents, fishing was the first industry that they had worked in. The majority of fishers in the sample group (63.1 percent) have at least one year of experience working in the industry, but over two-thirds of all fishers have been working for their current employer for less than a year.

Recruitment of fishers

Approximately one-third of the migrant fishers surveyed were recruited into the industry by brokers who charged for their transfer and placement with employers. Although the majority of fishers voluntarily enter these arrangements with brokers, they frequently find themselves in situations where they are unable to leave as a result of a debt incurred. Nearly a quarter of those who used a broker were having their wages deducted to pay this fee, and many of those who reported to have paid their broker up front had in fact secured a loan either from their employer, broker or family.

The survey examined whether fishers entered the sector voluntarily. While most of those surveyed did enter voluntarily, 5.4 percent stated that they were deceived or coerced to enter this work against their will. This problem was especially pronounced among long-haul fishers, with nearly one in six of the long-haul fishers surveyed (16 percent) stating that they did not willingly decide to work on a fishing vessel.

Of the 32 respondents who did not make the decision to work in fishing, 17 workers stated that they were “deceived or forced to work by the agents from the country of origin”; nine workers stated that they were “deceived or forced to work by the agents from Thailand” and six workers stated that they were “forced by relatives or family”.

Employment practices and working conditions for fishers

The conditions in which the surveyed fishers were working were found to be in violation of Thai labour legislation and regulations, and not in line with international standards established in the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188). The vast majority of the respondents were migrants in an irregular situation, which certainly contributed to their willingness to accept poorer conditions, and added to their vulnerability to exploitation.

The Ministerial Regulation No. 10 on Sea Fisheries Work (1998) requires employers to keep a list of crew, their tasks onboard and the terms of their remuneration. Upon receiving payment, the fishers should sign this document as evidence. Nearly 94 percent of fishers surveyed had not signed a contract with their employer before beginning work. Instead, verbal agreements were made, which leave little recourse for legal accountability in disputes over pay and working conditions.

The nature of fishing requires long working hours, and Ministerial Regulation No. 10 on Sea Fisheries Work does not place limits on working hours or require set periods of rest. Nearly 28 percent of respondents stated that they worked 17–24 hours per day and approximately 41 percent said that they did not have set working hours. Nearly three-fourths (73.7 percent) felt they had enough time to rest; and 26.3 percent said they did not have adequate rest. However, the excessive hours reported (which often include the time it takes to travel to the fishing grounds) can lead to fatigue which increases the risk of accidents. ILO Convention No. 188 requires that “fishers are given regular periods of rest of sufficient length to ensure safety and health” (ILO, 2007, p. 12).

Payment methods within the sample were found to be roughly equally split between those who received a share of the catch as remuneration and those who received a monthly salary in addition to a share of the catch. Compensation varied broadly, with the average salary reported by fishers approximately 6,480 Thai baht (THB) per month. Based on anecdotal accounts, the average salary among migrant fishers (THB5,883) is on par with the earnings of migrant workers in other sectors of the Thai labour market. Although fishers are not covered by the minimum wage provision, for comparison, the minimum wage in the four provinces during the study period was between THB246 and THB300 per day.

Over 42 percent of the fishers surveyed were subjected to deductions from their wages for various reasons. Approximately 40 percent of those subjected to deductions were not aware of why they were being made. The lack of a written employment contract, means that such deductions are frequently handled in an opaque manner. In addition, there have been cases reported through other sources of workers not being paid a wage at all, and instead of seeking compensation for work carried out, prefering to leave the employer to either find alternative employment or return home.

Ministerial Regulation No. 10 prohibits children under 16 to work in fishing, although those aged 15 can work with a guardian or with the permission of their guardian. The survey found 33 children under the age of 18 working on Thai fishing vessels, of which seven were under the age of 15. Limitations on the efficacy of labour inspections have hampered progress in addressing child labour in the fishing sector. Furthermore, there has been no assessment to determine the type of work onboard a fishing vessel which should not be carried out by workers under 18 years of age, according to the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1995 (No. 182), which have been ratified by Thailand in 2004 and 2001 respectively.

On workplace health and safety, 21 percent of sample respondents had experienced an on-the-job accident requiring medical attention at a clinic or hospital; and 72 percent of respondents were able to confirm that there was first aid equipment available on the boat. ILO Convention No. 188 requires that all fishing boats carry medical equipment and have at least one person on board trained in first aid.

The provision of social welfare benefits to the surveyed fishers was mostly at the discretion of boat owners because of the prevalence of irregular migrant workers and gaps in the legal framework. As a result, 78 percent of fishers were not receiving benefits, and even among Thai fishers, a full two-thirds were not receiving benefits.

Deceptive and coercive labour practices in the fishing sector

Forced labour is work for which the person has not entered of his or her own free will and that is exacted under the threat of penalty. The ILO has identified a number of indicators of forced labour, which include several practices that are reportedly common within the Thai fishing sector. These include: labouring under conditions of restricted freedom of movement; retention of identity documents; threat of denunciation to the authorities; physical or psychological violence; debt bondage; illegal wage deductions; or, non-payment of wages.

While individual cases would need greater investigation before determining whether the situations meet the criteria in the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), ratified by Thailand in 1969, the study found that approximately 16.9 percent of the fi shers surveyed identified themselves as being unable to leave their work for threat of penalty. The situation of these respondents can be split into two groups: those who could not leave the work because of a financial penalty (12 percent), and those who could not leave for other reasons, including the threat of violence or threat of denunciation to the authorities (4.9 percent). This threat of violence is very real: within the survey sample, over ten percent of fishers reported that they had been severely beaten on board, though not necessarily by the current employer.

In order to determine the extent to which the respondents who indicated a “financial penalty” were suffering severe labour exploitation, additional analysis was carried out on their working conditions. For the 12 percent of respondents that indicated they could not leave because of a financial penalty, certain working conditions were not dissimilar from the group that did not identify themselves as victims of coercive labour practices. Working conditions for the 4.9 percent that could not leave for other reasons were found to be much worse and consistent with severe labour exploitation.

The majority of the respondents who reported working in the sector against their will were from Myanmar, few were Cambodian and none were Thai. Conditions of forced labour were more prevalent on long-haul fishing boats compared with short-haul boats, with nearly 25 percent of long-haul fishers surveyed subject to deceptive or coercive labour practices. These long-haul fishers trapped in forced labour situations were more likely to have been employed through deceptive recruitment practices, whereas short-haul fishers were more likely to be forced to work by the threat of financial repercussions. Physical inability to escape means that forced labour practices on board deep-sea ships, which remain at sea for months or years at a time, are more overt and of increased severity.

Labour protection for fishers

The study findings indicate the inadequate protection available to fishers, and in particular to migrant fishers. Only 5.2 percent of fishers surveyed filed a grievance of any sort, and most directly engaged with their employer or approached non-government organisations (NGOs), rather than complain to government authorities. As irregular migrant workers, the barriers to accessing justice through labour authorities are self-evident, leaving few channels for legal redress. When asked why they did not complain, 61.7 percent of the fishers said that they had not experienced any serious rights violation – which, given the findings on working conditions, suggests a limited understanding among fishers about what their labour rights are. An additional 21.3 percent did not complain for other reasons: they feared retribution for raising complaints, were sceptical about the authorities’ ability to respond, or were unaware of how to make a complaint.

A majority of the fishers interviewed – nearly 51 percent – were interested in organizing in a labour union. There are no reports of any unions existing in the Thai fishing sector, and even if there were, the restrictions in the law would make it difficult for them to truly represent the interests of the largely migrant workforce.1

In general, labour protection for migrant fishers was found to be inaccessible and inadequately understood by fishers themselves. While a legal framework for these protections has been established in Thailand under the Labour Protection Act and Ministerial Regulation No. 10, mainly because of the predominance of irregular migrants in the industry, even these limited labour rights are often out of reach for many fishers.

Interviews with officials, employers and civil society groups indicated that challenges in improving protection for fishers lie in the limited coordination and cooperation among government agencies; shortages of personnel, resources and capacity to carry out their responsibilities; and the high number of irregular migrants in commercial fisheries, which adds to their vulnerability. To overcome such challenges, there have been efforts to revise Ministerial Regulation No.10 on Sea Fisheries Work; to establish Labour Coordination Centers for the Fishing Sector to eliminate the role of brokers, increase the proportion of migrant fishers with regular status, deliver training and receive complaints; and build the capacity of labour inspectors, fishing vessel owners and captains, and the fisher themselves.


Taking into account the fundamental rights at work to be found in international labour conventions ratified by Thailand, most notably Conventions No. 29 (forced labour), No. 100 (equal remuneration), No. 105 (forced labour), No. 111 (discrimination), No. 138 (minimum age) and No. 183 (worst forms of child labour), as well as recent initiatives aimed at accelerating the ratifi cation of Convention No. 87 (freedom of association) and No. 98 (right to organize and bargain collectively, it is recommended that the Thai Government draw on the standards in the ILO Convention on Work in Fishing, 2007 (No. 188) in its review of Ministerial Regulation No. 10 on Sea Fisheries Work and broader efforts to improve employment practices and working conditions for fishers. The process of strengthening policy and implementation of standards in the sector should also include consultation with a broad range of government departments, employers’ and workers’ organizations and civil society organizations to ensure greater support and compliance for the reforms enacted.

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