Rights group: Thai fishing sector abuses migrants

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BANGKOK (AP) — An environmental and human rights group has charged that Thailand is not adequately addressing severe abuse against Myanmar migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry.

The British-based Environmental Justice Foundation said in a report Tuesday that the Thai government has failed to act strongly against human trafficking and that violence is routine in the industry.

"Endemic corruption, poor enforcement, inadequate victim support, unacceptable working conditions and deficient migration policy," have not been tackled by Thai authorities, the group said.

Thai Labor Ministry Deputy Permanent Secretary Boontharik Samiti said the government was making a serious effort to protect workers in the fishing industry.

"Right now, we are aiming to reduce and eradicate human trafficking. For fisheries, all agencies have collectively come together in an effort to prevent this problem in a sustainable and long-term fashion," she told The Associated Press by phone from Songkhla, a southern seaboard province.

The foundation suggested the United States consider imposing economic sanctions on Thailand, the world's third-biggest seafood exporter after China and Norway.

Thailand's fishing industry is staffed predominantly by migrants from much poorer neighboring countries, including Cambodia and especially Myanmar. Often the workers have come to Thailand illegally with the help of human traffickers, leaving them little legal protection and large debts to be paid out of their wages. Very few have any sort of contract.

"Depending on the amount paid, a trafficked fisherman could often work from one to eight months before earning any wages for himself," noted a 2011 report by the International Organization for Migration, adding that some may work without pay for years on boats that are serviced by supply ships and rarely return to port.

"Migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry, many of them trafficked illegally, are suffering terrible abuses and all too often are denied their basic human rights," Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said in a statement.

"These people are Thailand's 'seafood slaves' forced to work to prop up the cash-rich fisheries industry," Trent said, urging governments and the industry to act to stop abuse.

Trent said unsound environmental practices worsen the problem; overfishing has led to declining catches, so operators use the cheapest labor and keep workers at sea longer to make the catch.

The organization says its findings would justify the U.S. State Department downgrading Thailand to the lowest ranking in its annual human trafficking report, a step that would subject it to certain sanctions. Thailand has on a watch list for four years for planning reforms but failing to implement them. The U.S. report will be issued later this year.

According to the group, the value of seafood imported by the United States from Thailand exceeded $1.6 billion in 2013.

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