Forced labour and other rights abuses are widespread in Thailand’s fishing fleets despite government commitments to comprehensive reforms, Human Rights Watch said in a report released at a European Parliament briefing on January 23.

Titled “Hidden Chains: Forced Labour and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry,” the 134-page report describes how migrant fishers from neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia are often trafficked into fishing work, prevented from changing employers, not paid on time, and paid below the minimum wage. Migrant workers do not receive Thai labour law protections and do not have the right to form a labour union.

“Consumers in Europe, the US, and Japan should be confident that their seafood from Thailand didn’t involve trafficked or forced labour,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet despite high-profile commitments by the Thai government to clean up the fishing industry, problems are rampant.”

To compile its report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 248 current and former fishers, almost all from Burma and Cambodia, as well as Thai government officials, boat owners and captains, civil society activists, fishing association representatives, and United Nations agency staff.

In response to the criticism, the Thai government scrapped antiquated fishing laws and issued a new ordinance to regulate the fishing industry. The government also extended application of the key provisions of labour law regulating wages and conditions of work to fishing vessels, and established in law some International Labour Organization (ILO) treaty provisions through adoption of the 2014 Ministerial Regulation concerning Labour Protection in Sea Fishery Work.

Migrant fishers were required to have legal documents and be accounted for on crew lists as boats departed and returned to port, helping to end some of the worst abuses, such as captains killing crew members.

Thailand also created the Port-in, Port-out (PIPO) system to require boats to report for inspections as they departed and returned to port, and established procedures for inspection of fishing vessels at sea.

However, according to Human Rights Watch, some measures, such as vessel monitoring systems and limiting time at sea to 30 days, have led to important improvements for fishers. But measures to address forced labour and other important labour and human rights protection measures often prioritise form over results.

For instance, the labour inspection regime is largely a theatrical exercise for international consumption, Human Rights Watch said. The group noted that over 50,000 inspections of fishers “implausibly” did not find a single instance where laws on conditions and hours of work, wages, treatment on board, and other issues in the Labour Protection Act of 1998, the 2014 Ministerial Regulation, and attendant regulations had been violated.

Requirements that fishers hold their own identification documents, receive and sign a written contract, and be paid monthly are frustrated by employer practices which hold fishers in debt bondage and ensure they cannot change employers. The lack of a stand-alone forced labour offence in Thai criminal law leaves a huge gap in law enforcement and deterrence.

“The Thai government’s lack of commitment means that regulations and programs to prevent forced labour in the fishing industry are failing,” Adams said. “International producers, buyers, and retailers of Thai seafood have a key role in ensuring that forced labour and other abuses come to an end.”

The situation has become worse in recent years, according to Human Rights Watch. For instance, the government’s “pink card” registration scheme, introduced in 2014 to reduce the number of undocumented migrants working in Thailand, has tied fishers’ legal status to specific locations and employers whose permission is needed to change jobs, creating an environment ripe for abuse.

“No one should be fooled by regulations that look good on paper but are not properly enforced,” Adams said.