A recent investigation from the Guardian has revealed how Rohingya migrants fleeing Burma to reach Malaysia are being held hostage for ransom by traffickers or sold to Thai fishing boats as slaves. The Rohingya, who are victims of trafficking and forced labour, have been reported to be living without adequate food and shelter and often subject to violence and life threats. As ships rarely come ashore, it is almost impossible to escape conditions of forced labour.
Thailand ratified the ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour in 1969 and its government has subsequently reaffirmed its commitment to combat human trafficking. However, human rights activists explain that there is little incentive to change the status quo since the seafood industry in Thailand is based on cheap labour and the whole sector could collapse if reforms were to change the way this business is done. Thailand remains the highest prawn exporter in the world and already in 2014 it was revealed that the world’s major prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, purchased fishmeal used to feed its farmed prawns from some fishing boats operated by slaves. Companies in the UK such as Tesco, Walmart, Carrefour, Costco, Aldi, the Co-operative, Morrisons and Iceland purchase fish from CP Foods and sell frozen and cooked prawns in their stores. To address this situation, in 2014, some of these companies joined Project Issara which is a public-private sector platform where experts from the United Nations, the private sector, civil society, and government partner to address trafficking in global supply chains and develop ethical channels for sourcing products.
In light of recent events and reports, such as those about the Rohingya slave labour, retailers and the Thai government are faced with the task of creating a sustainable fishing industry. In April 2015 the EU gave Thailand six months to regulate its fishing activities and put an end to illegal fishing and forced labour. The alternative would be a ban on its fish import that could lead Thailand to loose up to €1 billion in seafood exports in just one year. Since then government has put together a six point action plan and will be expected to review a legal framework which dates back to 1947. Meanwhile retailers must look towards a more sustainable fishing industry since a considerable decline in fishing due to unsustainable fishing practices is endangering the future of produce, and only sustainable practices can guarantee a future to the industry.
Human rights activist have also called on consumers to take action and companies to enforce clear supplier standards to ensure their supply chain is slavery-free. The UK echoed this with the Slavery Act 2015. Through this Act, UK retailers must prepare a human trafficking statement and provide evidence of slave-free supply chains and business. Companies must produce a statement of the steps taken to ensure slavery and trafficking are not taking place in their supply chains, and provide information on their related policies, due diligence process, risk assessment and management, and training to staff on the topic.
The Thai government and the companies involved have started taking note of all these concerns and it is hoped that they will soon introduce much-needed reform into the Thai fishing industry.