BANGKOK: Complaints of labour abuses and slavery on Thai fishing boats are routinely going unreported by the authorities, an analysis by the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed, raising fears that hundreds of fishermen have been denied justice and compensation.
Revelations of modern slavery at sea emerged in Thailand in 2014, prompting the nation to vow to better regulate the sector to tackle labour exploitation, trafficking and illegal fishing after the European Union threatened to ban Thai seafood imports.
But a senior official said a drive to clean up the industry was waning after exclusively obtained data revealed a large discrepancy between the official number of complaints and those recorded by four leading charities that advocate for fishermen.
Freedom of information requests filed with the government over three months showed 289 workers on fishing vessels in 11 provinces lodged labour abuse complaints between January 2015 and early 2020. There were no details regarding the outcomes.
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Yet the charities said they had helped about 1,600 fishermen from these regions raise grievances since 2015 over issues from non-payment and excessive overtime to verbal and physical abuse.
They feared most complaints were being dealt with off-the-books and that workers were missing out on due compensation while exploitative employers avoided scrutiny and punishment.
"For government officials, a large number of complaints means you're not performing well, and many fishermen agree to mediation because they don't want to waste time if the case goes to court," said Sunwanee Dolah from the Raks Thai Foundation.
"But this results in repeated offences and wrongdoers not being punished, causing a never-ending cycle of rights violations," added Sunwanee, whose charity supports fishermen who are mainly migrants from neighbouring Cambodia and Myanmar.
Thanaporn Sriyakul, an official in the prime minister's taskforce who oversees the fishing industry, said efforts to enforce labour laws at sea had decreased "at an astonishing rate" since the EU lifted its threat of a ban in January 2019.
"Government agencies have not been able to properly pursue complaints, resulting in distrust by the fisher(men)," said Thanaporn, adding that some labour ministry officials did not understand their duties when it came to reporting grievances.
Labour officials said individual complaints made against employers had to be registered while general ones filed about the workplace did not, and that this could explain the disparity between the newly-revealed state data and the charities' figure.
The charities, however, said all of the grievances they had helped to raise focused on employers rather than the workplace. Labour ministry inspector general Somboon Trisilanun said he "did not deny" that some complaints had wrongly gone unrecorded.
The data obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation covered 11 provinces where most of about 63,000 fishermen who work on commercial vessels are based. It did not include all fishing regions or workers in a sector employing more than 200,000.
The labour ministry said it permitted settlements provided workers received due compensation in line with Thai labour laws.
One regional labour ministry official, Sompop Khongrod, said he preferred to mediate rather than register labour complaints.
"Before submitting a complaint, if we think it's minor, we call the employer and the case is closed," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February when he was an assistant to the head of the Office of Labour Protection and Welfare in Songkhla.
"I have settled a large number of cases in this way and they weren't registered in the system," said Sompop, who has since become head of the Yala Office of Labour Protection and Welfare.
But activists and lawyers said settlements result in workers receiving less than they are entitled to, and embolden abusive bosses to act with impunity as they avoid sanctions or lawsuits.
"Workers have less negotiating power since labour inspectors tend to support employers," said Papop Siamhan, an independent lawyer with expertise in human trafficking.
"(Labour officials) don't want to record complaints because doing so is a burden for them and they are afraid of taking legal action against employers."
With growing concerns about informal mediation being used to silence cases of forced labour, the Seafood Working Group - a coalition of 60 civil society groups - in March urged the United States to demote Thailand in its annual anti-trafficking report.
Last year, Thailand was ranked as a Tier 2 country - with Tier 3 being the lowest - in the US State Department's closely watched global Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which noted the country was making significant efforts to combat the crime.
FEAR AND MISTRUST
Activists said most fishermen were reluctant to report abuses due to fear of authorities or retribution from employers.
Steve Trent, head of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said his advocacy group had worked with government officials to encourage them to build trust with workers and put them at ease.
"However, this process can take a long time," Trent said.
"If workers do not trust authority figures then they might understandably opt to go to a local NGO instead," he added.
Research by the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) in March found that of 50 workers in the sector who said they suffered labour abuses, none had sought help from the state.
The report found about 10 per cent of 470 fishing and seafood workers surveyed said they had been victims of forced labour, concluding that reforms to working conditions in the industry were having an impact but that severe exploitation persisted.
For Moe Win, the ILO's findings came as no surprise.
The Burmese migrant took up a job as a fisherman in the southern province of Pattani last August, but was paid only half of the promised 10,000 baht (US$314) monthly salary and forced to work more than 14 hours a day - a violation of Thai labour laws.
When his vessel was inspected by the authorities, he decided to speak out but his employer was informed who then berated him and the other fishermen on the boat.
Two months later, the Raks Thai Foundation helped him to pursue his complaint but it was not recorded and labour officials chose instead to settle the dispute with his boss.
While Moe Win considered himself fortunate that he ended up receiving his full salary, he feared for his fellow workers.
"Mediation is not good for workers because it causes employers to commit repeated offences," said Moe Win, whose name was changed to protect his identity.
"Workers are violated over and over again."