Thai Prison-Labor Scheme Draws International Condemnation

(Bangkok)— Fortify Rights and 44 other labor and human rights organizations sent a letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha today, asking him to end a pilot project to recruit prisoners from Thailand’s correctional facilities to fill a labor shortage in the fishing industry. 

Labor shortages have fueled human trafficking to Thailand’s fishing sector. In the last year, Fortify Rights has documented the trafficking in persons to Thai fishing boat operators and their intermediaries, in some cases enabled by complicit Thai authorities.

“Sending prisoners to sea won’t address the roots of Thailand’s endemic trafficking problem and stands to make matters much worse,” said Matthew Smith. “Given the state of labor on Thai fishing boats, this would be a punishment for prisoners, not a solution.” 

The open letter cites human rights abuses on Thai fishing boats, including forced labor, physical violence, murder, illegally low wages, and human trafficking as a primary reason for labor shortages in the fishing sector. The signatories expressed concern that the prison-labor plan would merely make prisoner-recruits vulnerable to the same abuses at sea endured by the current workforce of mostly migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia.

Migrant fishers in Thailand are typically undocumented and lack legal status, making them afraid to report to Thai authorities about rights violations they suffer on fishing boats. Thailand should take sustained, meaningful action to combat trafficking in persons and protect migrant and refugee rights, Fortify Rights said.

Since 2013, Fortify Rights has documented human trafficking and smuggling in Thailand. The organization has interviewed scores of survivors, witnesses, and human traffickers and smugglers, and visited places of detention in Thailand, where asylum seekers are held indefinitely.

Trafficked workers on Thai fishing boats can spend years in international waters without coming to shore, enduring inhumane and abusive working conditions. Those who become unable to work have been thrown overboard, according to human traffickers interviewed by Fortify Rights in the last year.

In 2014, Thailand was downgraded to Tier-three status on the United States Department of State’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons report—the lowest designation reserved for countries failing to adequately combat human trafficking. Tier-three countries face potential U.S. sanctions at the discretion of the President of the United States.

The signatories to the letter suggest the prison-labor plan could have negative economic and political consequences for Thailand. Western retailers and buyers are already increasingly wary that Thai seafood is produced in supply chains involving the use of forced labor and other labor rights abuses.

“Conscripted prison labor in seafood supply chains will not improve Thailand’s standing in global markets,” Matthew Smith said. “Thailand has an opportunity to end longstanding abuses in the fishing industry and should do everything in its power to do so.”

Stay Updated!

Subscribe to our mailing to receive periodic updates on human rights issues where we work.