If all goes according to plan, Thailand will become the first Asian nation to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Work in Fishing ahead of general elections and the restoration of democracy on February 24.

“There is a timeline to ratify it by January,” said Busadee Santipitaks, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Information Department. “We would like to set an example for the region.”

The ratification will mark the culmination of four years of tackling endemic problems in the nation’s fisheries sector, an industry plagued for years by widespread human rights abuses, trafficking in migrant laborers and unsustainable practices that have contributed to the depletion of the region’s fish stock.

But with electioneering underway, there are signs that Thai fisheries could be a hot topic on the campaign trail, one which could test the outgoing government’s considerable achievements in cleaning up the troubled sector.

Media reports of rampant labor abuses aboard Thailand’s massive fishing fleet of some 50,000 vessels became a national embarrassment for the regime of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha shortly after his military seized power in a May 2014 coup.

Industry ‘yellow carded’

In July 2014, the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest rank, that could have paved the way for a ban on Thai marine product imports to America.

Then, in 2015, the European Union slapped the kingdom with a “yellow card” for its failure to prevent “Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated” (IUU) fishing, with a special focus on abuses of labor rights aboard Thai fishing vessels.

The downgrades gave the impression that the coup had triggered an “open season” for Western governments bent on humiliating the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) regime, but in fact the demerits were well-deserved and had been pending for years.

Thailand ranks among the world’s top fisheries exporters – after Vietnam, Norway and China – earning an estimated US$5.8 billion in exports in 2017.

The country’s competitive strength is more as a seafood processor than as a source of raw materials, seen in its rising import of marine products that reached US$3.4 billion in 2017, up 16% year-on-year.

Unlike China and Vietnam, Thailand’s fisheries sector is largely manned by migrant workers, primarily from its poorer neighbors Myanmar and Cambodia.

Thailand’s dependence on migrant labor in fisheries dates back to Typhoon Gay in 1989, which sank some 200 fishing vessels in the Gulf of Thailand and drowned more than 500 Thai fishermen, putting a severe damper thereafter on local labor recruitment.

Fishing vessel owners were forced to seek migrant workers from Thailand’s less developed neighbors, who now account for about 90% of all employees on boats and in seafood processing factories.

Slave-like conditions exposed

Slave-like conditions endured by migrant laborers aboard Thai fishing vessels were exposed in investigative reports by the Associated Press, New York Times and the Guardian in 2013, and probably had more bearing on the TIP’s Tier 3 downgrade and the EU’s yellow-carding of Thailand than the anti-democratic coup.

“What really drove the events was the perfect storm of bad publicity that hit as the NCPO was taking power,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a rights advocacy group.

“Before that the navy, and by extension the NCPO, were pretty clueless about what was really happening to workers in the fishing fleets because they simply had no reason to care about it and they just looked the other way when abuses happened.”

To its credit, Prayut’s military regime responded to the downgrades fairly quickly.

“For instance, a minimum wage was applied to working in fishing for the first time. That was one of the big changes,” said Jason Judd, chief technical advisor at the ILO’s country office for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Next, Prayut used his extraordinary powers under Article 44 of the military’s interim constitution to issue a Royal Ordinance on Fisheries in 2015, aimed specifically at tackling the problems with IUU compliance after Thailand was yellow carded by the EU.

The ordinance led to the enactment of some 138 new fisheries-related regulations, including a review of the licensing for vessels which brought the number of fishing boats down from 49,860 to 19,424 after weeding out illegal operators.

It also led to the introduction of a monitoring and surveillance system, including the establishment of port-in-port-out centers in 30 ports nationwide, the placement of monitoring gear aboard Thai vessels and the creation of a special task force to arrest vessels involved in illegal fishing and human trafficking.

Central command set up

Since 2015, Thailand has prosecuted 88 cases related to human trafficking in the fishery sector, including the conviction of an army general found to be involved in trafficking Rohingyas in the country’s southern region.

“The most important development was the establishment of a command center to tackle the issues related to IUU,” Busadee said.

A central command was needed, as tackling IUU involves coordination among several ministries and departments, not to mention private sector players, vessel owners and fishermen.

Some corporate players, such as Thai Union (TU) Group, the world’s largest exporter of canned tuna under such popular brands as Chicken of the Sea, have waged their own private campaigns to save their image as Thailand’s international reputation plummeted.

TU partnered with Greenpeace and the International Transport Workers Federation to devise a “code of conduct” for all fishing vessels supplying the group with fish stock that was enforced worldwide in 2017. It is also experimenting with so-called e-observer gadgets aboard all of its supplier vessels.

“One of the most significant programs we’ve put in place is our ethical migrant recruitment policy which came about through work with a local NGO – the Migrant Workers Rights Network – to try to reduce the debts of migrant workers find themselves in when they travel to Thailand,” said Darian McBain, TU’s global director of sustainable development.

Over the past four years, the NCPO government has tried to better regulate the registration of an estimated two million migrant laborers, not only in fisheries but all other jobs requiring manual labor such as construction, restaurants, agriculture, domestic help and gardeners.

With near zero unemployment and a rapidly aging population, Thailand has little economic option but to continue to allow the influx of migrant laborers and to improve their working conditions.

As of June 2018, the fisheries sector alone employed 114,558 migrant workers aboard vessels and in seafood processing plants. And still vessel owners complain that they need an additional 40,000 to 50,000 workers to run the industry’s now reduced fleet.

Reluctant to comply

Of the various players in the fishing sector, the National Fisheries Association of Thailand (NFAT), which represents fishing vessel owners, has proven the most reluctant to comply with the reforms, citing rising costs, lack of laborers and reduced competitiveness, labor experts said.

“From day one they were opposed to any sort of change to the status quo, including their systematic and pervasive use of trafficked labor,” Robertson said. “The military had to drag them kicking and screaming to the reform process.”

Representatives of the Thai fishing industry have already approached the Peua Thai Party, associated with former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in an effort to turn their complaints about IUU compliance into an election issue among southern voters.

“I expect that a new democratic government may try to slow down any legislation to implement [the ILO’S Convention], probably under pressure from the NFAT,” Robertson said.

If true, it would mark a significant reversal. Although still yellow carded by the EU, Thailand moved up from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in the 2018 TIP report. What is needed now is for other Southeast Asian countries to follow Thailand’s lead, industry observers say.

“Thailand is in the lead with the ratification and with establishing a system of inspectors,” said the ILO’s Judd. “But after some point it becomes a comparative disadvantage if Thailand is making changes to the industry to raise standards but the competition isn’t.”