Thailand will welcome E.U. seafood industry inspection

3Eager to prove to the world that it is fighting rogue employers who engage in labor and environmental abuse, Thailand’s government will welcome a European Union team to inspect 101 locations for possible violations in the Kingdom’s seafood and shrimp industries next month, as a leading Western labor rights activist cautioned against boycotts of Thai seafood because they would also hurt honest employers.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai met with executives from Thai seafood industry groups and companies last week to develop ideas and guidelines to prevent labor abuse and trafficking in their industry and come into full compliance with international standards. Don attributed the black eye Thai fisheries have suffered in international media reports to a few “black sheep” among otherwise responsible companies.

“Black sheep are found in every industry. We have worked hard to address the problems, even though the ‘ black sheep’ can turn up in any place, all over the world,” the Foreign Minister said.

His comments and the meeting were in response to a report published two weeks ago by the Associated Press that found Burmese migrant workers suffering abuse in shrimp peeling sheds, some of which supply shrimp to Thai companies that then export them to markets in developed countries. Earlier reports had also found human trafficking and labor abuse on Thai fishing ships, as well as ships engaging in illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

The European Union gave Thailand a warning earlier this year to clean up problems in its fishing and seafood industries or face a possible ban on exports of those products to the E.U. Since that warning, Thailand has initiated a wide-ranging program to better regulate and monitor the industries and severely punish violators. Among the measures taken: scores of human traffickers have been arrested, thousands of fishing vessels have had their licenses revoked, more than a million migrant workers have now been legally registered to work in Thailand, and services to victims have been improved.

Don expressed confidence that the E.U. inspectors would recognize the significant steps Thailand has already taken, and its commitment to eliminating any gaps in its campaign and governance. He expects the E.U. will not bar Thai seafood from its markets, and that the United States will raise Thailand’s ranking in its next annual report on human trafficking.

Reacting to the revelations about abuse at shrimp peeling sheds, the Thai Frozen Foods Association said all its members would stop sourcing from shrimp peeling sheds, which are small independent businesses, and move those operations in-house so that they can exercise control over their supply chains and rid the industry of labor abuse.

TFFA president Poj Aramwattananon said his members are anxious to fight human rights violations and illegal labor in the supply chain. “It is clear that complete transparency and full oversight is required. This is the only way to restore the industry’s image and protect it from accusations of slave labor. Members will only produce and export shrimps processed in-house. We don’t want to face any accusations from abroad,” he said.

Meanwhile, Steve Trent, the founder and director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, a civil society group that has been critical of the Thai seafood industry, told the Washington Post that boycotting Thai shrimp or seafood, as some groups have called for, could be counterproductive.

“I would say boycotts are a blunt instrument,” he said. “They’re easy to call for, but they all too often don’t deliver the result you want.”

Working with Thailand’s government and private sector is more likely to achieve positive results.