The Thai fisheries sector has been under international scrutiny for years for poor labor conditions, including forced labor. Since the European Union (EU) yellow card on Thai seafood in 2015, the Thai government launched labor reforms, tightened fishing regulations, and became a signatory to the ILO C188 – Work in Fishing Convention (2007). With decidedly mixed results, the business sector is attempting to cascade codes of conduct down the supply chain and has sought to improve its supply chain traceability down to the vessel level. Despite these commitments and some improvements, transformational change remains elusive on labor issues including freely chosen employment, decent working hours, humane treatment, and appropriate wage payments, among others. The fact that Thailand was downgraded from Tier 2 to Tier 2 Watch List in the 2021 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report is just one indication that much progress remains to be accomplished.
International exposés of labor conditions on Thai fishing vessels have long identified a vessel’s physical structure as an inherent driver of labor risk in the industry. Intrinsically labor-intensive, the fishing practices of the Thai fleet raise concerns related to the working and living conditions aboard fishing vessels. These findings led Nestlé and Verité to collaborate on a project exploring how Thai fishing vessels might be modified to enable long-term improvements for both the workers and vessel owners.
Apart from the obvious goal of seeking improvements in labor conditions, this project also sought to explore and engage the so-called “business case” from the vessel owners’ perspective. Thai vessel owners often claim that new regulations have hurt their business and that buyers have shifted a substantial amount of their procurement to other countries with less strict regulation and international scrutiny, thereby undercutting their claims to sustainable change in Thailand. In this context, we explored how to incentivize compliance and integrate higher standards in ways that reflect a sophisticated approach to meeting the needs of workers, the environment, and businesses in tandem.
Mechanization of a Purse Seiner Vessel
In 2018, a vessel owner in Pattani mechanized his purse seiner, with technical support from the Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC). To better understand the financial and labor impact of mechanization, Verité documented this initiative, with hopes to inform future discussions on possible interventions into the Thai fishing sector.
Vessel renovations undertaken to address labor and working conditions included the installation of a hydraulic net hauling system and a refrigeration seawater cooling system (RSW), which partially automates fishing processes that are heavily reliant on labor in traditional vessels. With these and other superstructure adjustments, N. Lapprasert 8 (NL8) was able to change its fishing procedures and modify working and living conditions. Impacts included:
- 40 percent fewer crew members were needed to work the vessel, resulting in reduced overhead costs;
- fewer crew members reduced overcrowding on the vessel; and
- work safety improved as crew members were no longer extensively involved in deploying and retrieving nets.
Lapprasert 8’s mechanization comes two years after the development of Plalang 1 — a demonstration vessel funded by Nestlé and Thai Union to showcase C188 implementation on a Thai fishing vessel. It also follows a nationwide training series on labor standards and sustainable fishing practices with vessel owners in key fishing hotspots, funded by the two companies, and conducted by Verité and SEAFDEC. Discussions with vessel owners during this training series further reinforced the need for a “win-win solution,” wherein labor rights and business interests dovetail to support both.
Scaling Up Mechanization
Since N. Lapprasert 8’s mechanization, there have been discussions among fisheries associations and the Thai government on scaling up vessel mechanization support through a government program. However, two significant challenges prevent the organic, wide-scale industry uptake of mechanization: 1) the lack of technical expertise of vessel owners, and 2) the substantial initial financial investment needed to renovate the vessels — both of which fisheries associations are looking to the government to assuage.
While mechanization promises a win-win solution for business and workers, other perennial labor issues remain, e.g., workers may be safer, but they may still be trafficked and poorly paid. One approach that may help address labor issues would be making government financial and technical support for mechanization dependent upon participation in a comprehensive labor improvement program. Environmental impacts must also be considered. Conservationists are wary as the technical improvements could lead to overfishing. Further research into the impacts of mechanization on the environment need further assessment.
Verité presented research findings on N. Lapprasert 8’s mechanization in a webinar on May 27, 2021 and will be conducting a series of stakeholder consultations to explore ways governments, brands, retailers, and industry associations may take mechanization forward, and gather feedback from environmental organizations on mechanization’s impact on environmental sustainability.
For more information, contact Panyarak Roque at email@example.com.