Falling Through the Net II: A Survey of Basic Labor Rights Among Migrants Working in Thailand’s Fishing Sector

Falling Through the Net II: A Survey of Basic Labor Rights Among Migrants Working in Thailand’s Fishing Sector

Falling Through the Net II: A Survey of Basic Labor Rights Among Migrants Working in Thailand’s Fishing Sector

Executive Summary

The purpose of this report is to document the rights situation of workers in Thailand’s fishing sector, particularly in the context of recent reduced international pressure. In January 2019, the European Union lifted its ‘yellow card’ from Thailand, following important strides of the Government of Thailand in addressing violations of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, including those related to labor rights. Nevertheless, the CSO Coalition for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood (CSO Coalition) remains concerned that reduced international pressure may lead to a gradual easing of enforcement of the strict measures and law enforcement that the government introduced. We are also wary of potential discrepancies between the hastily enacted Labor Protection in Fisheries Act 2019 and actual implementation on the ground. To prevent lapses in progress, the government needs to carefully manage the transition from policy reforms to effective policy implementation.

The report is based on surveys conducted from July to November 2019, and builds on our research from 2018 that included 300 migrant workers in six provinces. For the 2019 surveys, we employed a quantitative research method, including 475 migrants on fishing boats, mainly Burmese and Cambodian nationals, conducted in eight coastal provinces in areas of the northern and eastern coasts of the Gulf of Thailand, as well as on the Andaman Sea. The CSO Coalition’s surveys are a product of collaborations between frontline organizations who are members of the coalition and who work extensively with migrant workers in the fishing and seafood supply chains. In some cases, the researchers were themselves migrants or previously workers in the fisheries. To ensure high research standards, we worked closely with Asian Research Center for Migration (ARCM), Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University on research design and data collection methods.

Among the survey findings, we note areas of significant improvement since the last survey. First, there is a normalizing trend of regular wage payment, showing a higher proportion (52 percent in 2018 to 69 percent in 2019) of workers report regular wage payment of at least once a month, as required by the law, along with a lower proportion of workers receiving lump-sum payments on a trip basis, compared to last year’s survey. Secondly, it is encouraging to find that at least 15 percent of workers had already engaged in wage bargaining with the employers, while around one-tenth reported having joined their colleagues in doing so. Thirdly, although we find that over two-thirds of workers felt they did not receive enough information about their rights, this proportion is less than the past, and could be seen as an opportunity for proactive educational campaigns. Lastly, there are also signs of improvement in welfare-related labor practices, such as a higher proportion of workers taking paid sick leave on board than reported in previous findings.

Some positive findings highlight areas of emerging good practices. As mentioned, fishing workers have sought to engage with their employers as part of asserting their employee rights. Although the forms of collective bargaining used were largely informal, our findings show that for the first time there is a promising exercise of employees’ fundamental right to collective bargaining over their employment issues and working conditions. We likewise note the positive monitoring and support role of NGOs in the effective implementation of policy reforms.

The findings reveal persistent significant gaps in the transition from policy reforms to effective policy implementation, especially those surrounding practices of vessel owners. For one, as many workers’ still lack of access to an employment contract as found in previous reports, with more than half of workers receiving neither information about their job or their contract before they start their work. And even higher proportion were unable to read their contract before signing it than in 2018. With a large majority of workers (over 85%) still not able to possess their employment contracts, they remain powerless in their employment relationship. Furthermore, vessel operators continue to ignore the law on electronic payments, since most workers still receive wages in lump sum payments of cash at intervals spanning several months or years, making them dependent on loans from employers for their daily expenses between payments.

One striking finding is that the wage payment system in fishing seems to be less straightforward than we thought: while 69 percent of respondents reported receiving their payment as monthly wages in principle, in fact only 58 percent indicated that they actually received wages on a monthly basis. Moreover, 44 percent reported that they received their full wage after having worked for one month, while more than a quarter (29 percent) received the full wage only after 2-6 months. In addition, more than one-fifth (22 percent) reported they needed to have worked between 7-24 months before they were paid. Findings related to welfare and living conditions on board also indicate slow progress, with more than a third of respondents expressing a desire to see improvements in such areas as the provision of adequate sleeping quarters, of sufficient food and clean drinking water, and of hygienic toilets onboard vessels. In addition, compliance with some aspects of labor laws has not improved, as indicated by reports of inadequate rest hours and harsh punishments by employers or supervisors onboard. These findings highlight the continued insecurity of fishing workers due to unclear work agreements, payment practices that can result in debt bondage, and poor work/living conditions.

Other areas of concern relate to worker rights awareness, barriers to changing jobs, limitations in vessel inspections, and official grievance mechanisms. More than two-thirds of fishing workers felt that they were not adequately informed about their rights, indicating the need for more comprehensive work in disseminating workers’ rights information. Those who have attempted to change jobs report significant obstacles, including employers’ refusal to provide approval paperwork, exorbitant costs, workers’ fear of reprisal (e.g., seizure of identity documents) and employer withholding of payments. Regarding vessel inspections, more than half of respondents reported that government inspectors only focus on document verification and do not communicate much with workers about their concerns and problems. Finally, only a tiny fraction (3 percent) of workers used grievance mechanisms at work, whereas a quarter of workers were not yet aware of them. The proportion of workers who were skeptical about their effectiveness was even higher than in the previous survey. These findings suggest that aside from the problems related to employment and job conditions, there are still limitations to how workers can assert their agency in switching jobs as well as to effective channels for them to voice their concerns to government officials.

Given these findings, we propose policy recommendations (see pp. 40-42 below) for a wide range of stakeholders involved in the seafood sector of the economy, including the government, international seafood buyers, local suppliers, vessel owners and the Civil Society Organizations. Among stakeholders, we would like to see more rigorous measures and law enforcement from the Thai government, which hold vessel owners and operators accountable to legal requirements and obligations of their labor rights. Major policy recommendations focus on the following priority areas:

  • Establish a comprehensive, rigorous and more inclusive vessel inspection process; • Update laws on fishery work situations and ensure law enforcement complies with international labor standards;
  • Improve the credibility, transparency, and efficiency of grievance mechanisms; • Increase the transparency and efficiency of the e-payment system and hold employers more accountable to monitoring and inspection;
  • Enhance the welfare and safety of migrant workers in fishing, and
  • Commit to respecting migrant fishers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining.

Besides these recommendations, we would also like to see a more proactive role of international seafood buyers and suppliers in supporting ongoing efforts of the CSO Coalition and the government to strengthen the rule of law and accountability, mentioned above. International seafood buyers and the seafood industry platform (i.e. Seafood Task Force and the SEA Alliance) could do so by actively engaging with both the CSO coalition and the Thai government to promote migrant workers’ structural and collective power, advocate for stronger labor rights protections, and make sure no workers and rights defenders facing retaliation and reprisal from local companies while voicing their labor concerns and exercising the freedom of association. Also, the seafood buyers and retailers could demonstrate commitments to creating more responsible supply chains by taking steps in the direction of making responsible recruitment and sustainable employment a reality. Lastly, Thai seafood suppliers should take the lead in promoting efficiency and confidentiality of the grievance mechanisms by collaborating with CSOs and exercising appropriate market power vested in the supply chains to encourage vessel owners to join their initiatives.