11 July 2024

Concern is growing that Thailand’s new fisheries law will drag the country backwards, making it more vulnerable to human trafficking and jeopardising its multibillion-baht seafood export industry.

“If Thailand’s ranking in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons [TIP] Report slips to Tier 3, it is going to be difficult to climb back up,” said Thanaporn Sriyakul, director of the Institute of Politics and Policy Analysis.

She voiced her anxieties after Parliament approved in principle proposed amendments to the 2017 Fisheries Act, and seven related draft laws, that were presented by the Cabinet. The proposal, now being reviewed by an ad-hoc committee, will be sent back to Parliament for deliberation next month.

Key changes

The amendments, if approved, will reduce penalties for violating fisheries laws. Under the current Fisheries Act, any fishing trawler working in a conserved area is liable to a fine ranging from Bt300,000 to Bt35 million, depending on the size and capacity of the vessel. But if passed, the proposals would cut that fine to Bt50,000-1 million.

The amendments would also allow lists of crewmen to be registered electronically. While this idea accords with the growing digital trend, critics say it could open a legal loophole to allow the employment of migrant workers on fishing boats in slavery-like conditions.

The proposal also permits the unloading of fishing catches offshore with the help of another vessel.

Critics point out that if fishing boats don’t have to return to port to deliver their catch, their crews will not be able to get proper shore leave. In other words, crewmen may have to work at sea for weeks or months at a time.

Additionally, the proposed amendments will reduce the size of the coastal fishing zone in certain areas, which will pressure artisanal fishermen who are already feeling the pinch.

The law change would also remove the blanket ban on nets with mesh smaller than 2.5 square centimetres.

This proposal has caused an outcry among environmentalists, who say small-mesh nets indiscriminately destroy young sea creatures that are the basis of future stocks and the marine ecosystem’s sustainability.

Finally, if successful, the proposal would remove Article 4 on labour rights protection from the fisheries law.

Human trafficking, economic woes

Thanaporn says Thailand may end up being downgraded in the US’s upcoming TIP report if the proposed changes to the fisheries law are passed.

“Once the downgrade happens, the country will face higher trade barriers,” he explained.

The US Department of State upgraded Thailand from the Tier 2 Watchlist to Tier 2 in 2022, stating that although the Thai government “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it is making significant efforts to do so”.

Inclusion on the Tier 2 Watchlist meant that Thailand was subject to certain trade barriers.

Esimates suggest Thailand’s seafood and fishery exports were worth over 200 billion baht  in 2022.

According to Adisorn Kerdmongkol of the Migrant Working Group, about 60% of those exports go to countries with serious commitments to labour rights and care for the environment.

“So, if Thailand places labour rights or the environment at risk, its economy will be affected,” he explained.

The amendments to the current fishing law, which was introduced to fight human trafficking, would significantly raise the risk of labour-rights violations, he added.

“If catches can be delivered to shore via another vessel, each fishing boat will be able to work at sea for 60 to 90 days per trip.

In this case, fishermen’s right to holidays and welfare may be endangered,” he pointed out.

Government’s view

Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thamanat Prompow has defended the move to amend fishing laws. He argued that the amendments are required to keep pace with the changing context and address the plight of hardworking fishermen

“Our aim is to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated [IUU] fishing without endangering artisanal fisheries,” he said.

The proposal, for example, adds the definition of artisanal fisheries to the law and seeks to remove the ban on artisanal fishermen straying outside coastal zones.

“We will even allow nets with mesh smaller than 2.5 square centimetres,” he confirmed.

Meanwhile, the category of artisanal fishermen would only be open to Thai nationals.

The law change would also allow fishermen and fishing boat owners to acquire fisheries licences even if they had breached the fisheries law.

Thamanat said any penalty in such cases would only apply to the vessel involved in the crime, which would ensure that fishermen or operators who owned more than one vessel could still continue with their livelihoods.

Caution needed’

At a recent academic seminar, Phenpiccha Jankomol of the Migrant Working Group said she had no objections to updating the fisheries law in line with the changing context, but was opposed to lowering legal protections for labourers.

“The fishing industry is rife with reports of workers unable to access their identification papers, struggling to get their wages, and facing physical assault,” she said.

“These complaints are on top of work-related accidents and deaths [in fishing].”

Adisorn Promthep, an advisor to the Thai Tuna Industry Association, said the proposed amendments would violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) guidelines.

“If our country defies the WTO guidelines, we may be slapped with retaliatory actions,” he said.

Speaking at the same seminar, Pruksa Singahapol from the Environmental Justice Foundation said that the amendments, if approved, would be a backward step for Thailand.

Fellow panellist Kritsada Boonchai, from the Assembly of NGOs for the Protection and Conservation of Environment and Natural Resources, said the proposal focused on “outdated capitalism” at the expense of sustainability and fairness.

“In essence, it will permit destructive operations that favour commercial fisheries while destroying biodiversity and the ecosystem,” he said.

Piya Tedyam, president of the Federation of Thai Fisherfolk Federation, lamented that the proposal would reduce fish populations and bring an end to artisanal fisheries.

“We are speaking up, but you don’t seem to be listening,” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk