Focus on Thai fishing distracts from worker abuse in other sectors: researchers

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of migrant workers in Thailand’s construction, agriculture and livestock industries suffer from exploitative practices, but a focus on the fishing sector has distracted attention from them, researchers said on Thursday.

Migrant workers in several industries get few protections, including a minimum wage and overtime pay, and contend with unsafe working and living conditions, the United Nations said in a report.

While Thailand has taken steps to clean up its multibillion-dollar seafood industry after it came under international scrutiny for slavery, trafficking and violence on boats, it has done little to regulate conditions in other sectors, it said.

“The singular focus has diverted attention away from similar problems occurring elsewhere in Thailand,” the U.N. said in the report released in Bangkok.

Exploitative practices have been recorded in domestic work, sex work, construction, agriculture, livestock, hospitality, garment manufacturing and other sectors, “yet they have received much less effort and investment to improve conditions”.

There are about 4.9 million migrants in Thailand, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s workforce, the U.N. estimates. Most are from poorer neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Since taking power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s ruling junta has taken a more restrictive approach to the foreign workforce.

The country has also taken some steps to tackle abuse, eliminating recruitment fees paid by workers, and banning the practice of withholding identification documents.

Yet because recruitment systems and governance frameworks are not effective, workers are “vulnerable to exploitation at various points during the migration process,” the U.N. said.

The agricultural sector has high levels of informal work combined with low wages and use of child labor, while sex workers face harassment and the threat of arrest because they are not covered by Thailand’s labor laws, it said.

One activist said extensive media coverage and the financial implications of a ban on seafood exports had led the Thai authorities to act, even as abuses in other sectors remained unreported.

“Perhaps people believe slavery at sea to be more compelling than slavery on land,” said Debbie Stothard, secretary general at the International Federation for Human Rights, an advocacy group.

“So there’s been far less outrage and attention to abuses in other industries,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Earlier this month, the European Union withdrew its threat to ban Thai fishing imports, saying it recognized the country’s efforts to tackle human trafficking and improve labor conditions.

In a rare victory for migrant workers, Thailand’s highest court last week ordered compensation be paid to 14 migrant laborers from Myanmar whose accusations of abuse at a chicken farm sparked a landmark legal case.

(Fixes attribution throughout from International Organization for Migration to United Nations.)

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit