January 21, 2020
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Myanmar Migrant Trap

Migrant worker from Myanmar (Photo: Atti-la / Flickr)

Thailand’S raised minimum wage is causing Thai fishing boat captains heartache. Myanmar migrants who man the boats are trying when they can to escape to what they think might be better and safer opportunities in Thai factories.

Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra has full-filled an election pledge and instituted a minimum daily wage of 300 baht in the country. While this may benefit many lowly-paid workers, it has also led to the shedding of jobs by companies and workers being forced to work harder and longer for their pay.

Thailand’s fishing fleet is facing a manpower crisis, partly because of the lure of higher pay elsewhere but also because of the industry’s bad reputation.

Contrary to the image of Thailand being a “Land of Smiles,” the reality of work for Myanmar migrants on the boats is one of bad treatment, even murder.

As one former Myanmar migrant fisherman put it, “Burmese fishermen dies like dogs and pigs on Thai fishing boats.”

A recent UN study reported that 59 percent of surveyed migrants who had been trafficked onto Thai fishing boats had witnessed a fellow worker being killed by the boat’s captain or senior crew members.

Most of the migrants are tricked into working on the boats after applying for what they had hoped would be lucrative work in factories or in the logging industry.

It’s tough being a sailor at the best of times, but for Myanmar migrants, they are lucky if they survive the experience.

Deadly occupation

Myanmar migrant Wan Yan counts himself lucky to be alive. At the age of 16, he fled poverty in Myanmar in search of work and was lured to join the crew on a Thai fishing boat with promises of good pay. It was two years before he could place his feet back on dry land.

Wan Yan’s story is one of thousands that typically remain untold. The Thai fishing fleets rely almost exclusively on Myanmar and Cambodian migrants, typically working illegally. It is an industry cloaked in murky dealings, with horror stories of long hours, bad conditions and abuse, and one that is proving hard to police.

Jim Wickens is a film maker with the UK-based Ecologist Film Unitwho penetrated the hidden world of migrant workers at sea. In his documentary, “Grinding Nemo: What’s the real cost of your prawn curry?” Wickens surreptitiously got access to the boats and migrants – mostly from Myanmar - struggling to work.

Working undercover for the Ecologist, he managed to board several trawlers fishing offshore. According to the film and story by Wickens, they were told of captains force-feeding amphetamines to half-starved crew members, the routine killing of crew who complain, and Myanmar migrants leaping from the backs of vessels in suicidal bids to escape the torment of life at sea.

One man Wickens spoke to talked of a killing he witnessed: “The captain took his gun and shot him until he fell off the boat. He fell in the gap between the two boats. He didn’t die right away, he tried to come up, but the captain just gave him another shot until he sank away... I’ve seen this happen twice,” he said.

Wickens told Mizzima Business Weeklythat there was no camaraderie that you might find on a small boat. This was essentially apartheid at sea, a Thai captain and his crew lording it over the fishermen. Treatment of the deck hands is poor. And it was hard to get a clear picture of how many fishermen were beaten, or worse, killed, he said.

Wan Yan’s case reflects the experience of many. “Every time I saw the mother ship come, I would cry because I wanted to go home,” he told the Ecologist, referring to the large supply boat. “But I couldn’t because they wouldn’t let me.”

Taken to fish hundreds of miles out at sea in the Indian Ocean, he was continually trafficked between vessels, his only contact with the outside world was the supply boat that would bring food and fuel and carry the fish back to Thai ports.

Even those allowed to return to shore may find themselves locked up, waiting until the boat sets sail again.

Wickens and his film team met and interviewed a number of Myanmar migrants on the boats, as well as some who had escaped and were only willing to talk under cover of anonymity.

Not all migrants are treated badly but there are many stories of abuse.

There have been alarming cases where complaints over pay or working conditions have been met with collusive responses that involved three types of people: fishing company or ship owners, local gangsters as enforcers, and police or immigration officials. The results for some Myanmar migrants have been beatings, occasional deaths, and deportations. The police typically claim they are not involved and that any problems in the past have been sorted out and the bad apples dismissed from the force.

Surveys, interviews and anecdotal evidence suggests Wan Yan’s case was fairly typical. As he said, he was seasick all the time but had to continue to work as the captain carried a gun and it was impossible to say no to him. It was only because the boat began to leak that the boat returned to port.

Vulnerable to abuse

A crucial part of the problem is the vulnerability of migrants minus papers, like Wan Yan. In total, there are estimated to be around 2 million Myanmar migrants, in addition to other nationalities, working illegally or on temporary work papers. Many are vulnerable and have no choice but to take what is on offer as far as work and pay and keep quiet. All it takes is a phone call and they can be taken away for deportation with others being hired in their place.

Fishing boat captains and their owners know that there is lack of efficient policing at sea. Plus fishing is getting tougher as stocks are depleted and boats and their crews have to go on longer voyages. As the Ecologist points out, many boats seek to catch whatever they can, with nets that in effect vacuum up the oceans with young fish caught in the catch, a practice that is illegal. As the report points out, few people dining in the United States or Europe realize that the prawn curry they may be eating comes at a substantial cost, both in terms of the treatment of labour used and in the young fish that are ground up to make feed for onshore prawn farms.

Those most likely to end up on the Thai boats are Myanmar and Cambodian migrants desperate for a job and often tricked into joining up, expecting good wages, some not expecting they will be going to sea.

Phil Robertson, an expert maritime labour issues and the author of a report for the International Migration Organization, entitled, “Trafficking of Fishermen in Thailand,” says Myanmar migrants are in demand because Thais tend to steer clear of working as fishermen in the wake of the 1989 Typhoon Gay tragedy that saw the sinking of 200 fishing boats, 458 deaths and over 600 missing, presumed dead. Compounding the problem is scarcity of fish and increased competition. Plus the message has got out to the many local Thai migrants, who often come from the country’s relatively poor Northeast – stay clear of the fishing boats.

“One of the things that has propelled trafficking of Myanmar fishermen on Thai fishing boats is that the Thai boats are going much further than they did before,” Robertson told Mizzima Business Weekly. “Given the abusive labor conditions and the propensity of fishing captains to cheat workers out of wages, no one wants to voluntarily sign up for a tour that will take four to five years – which is the amount of time some of the boats take to go to and remain in Indonesian waters, or even further, to Somalia, or off the coast of Yemen.  So, increasing competition for ocean fish stock also causes greater demand for trafficked men and boys from Myanmar to serve on fishing boats.”

Robertson’s investigations reveal the harrowing conditions that Myanmar and Cambodian migrants face on the boats, similar to those faced by Wan Yan.

“The conditions are brutal and deadly. Fisherman are forced to work day in and day out, often 20 or more hours per day, and face severe beatings if they falter, fall asleep, or are seen to not be working as hard as the captain and first mate think they should.  In Indonesia seas, boats can be out at sea and working consistently for 45 days in a row before coming back to port.  In other places, I was told about ‘sea prison’ – where trafficked fishermen are transferred from a boat returning to port to another boat staying at sea, and this happens time and time again so that these fishermen may not see land, or have a break from their brutal treatment, for years.”  

Dealing with the problem

The Thai authorities have said they are trying to deal with the problems besetting the fishing industry. But it is hard to see any positive progress. The International Migrant Organization report makes recommendations for actions to solve the problem of trafficking on Thai fishing boats including developing a legal and regulatory framework, prevention measures, and ways to prosecute in the case of bad treatment.

According to Robertson, the Thai government is not seriously considering any of these except the proposal for hiring reform, through a hiring hall arrangement, – “but unfortunately, I predict that will be a situation similar to the fox guarding the chickens, since the Thai government appears to be ceding day to day operational control over the proposed centers to the National Fishing Association of Thailand, an employers’ group which has a checkered record in dealing with the issue of human trafficking.  

For years, they have denied that it was happening, and now they are suddenly part of the solution – looks like the prescription for a whitewash of the situation to me, without likely really improvements occurring.”  

Andy Hall is an expert on migrant issues. He says there has been little effective antitrafficking and anti-exploitation programs enacted by the Thai authorities to genuinely address and improve the appalling situation of migrant workers, particularly from Myanmar and Cambodia, but also from Thailand itself and other countries, being blatantly and systematically abused on Thai fishing boats in Thai waters and outside of Thai waters.

He says there has been a positive development in the drafting and enactment of a fishing regulation to bring these vulnerable workers more clearly within Thailand’s labor protection laws (Labour Protection Act 1998), but enacting more legislation is one necessary step, as without enforcement and addressing wider systematic abuse factors like poor recruitment practices, broker exploitation and law officials’ abuses of power, the legal changes will be
meaningless in practice.

There has been little sign so far that the Thai Government is addressing this problem as seriously and urgently as they should be, says Hall, given the amount of global export from Thailand of seafood products but also in view the global campaigns on trafficking and migrant abuse. There has not been enough pressure placed on Thailand by international consumers and governments who receive Thai fish also, he points out.

He says it is very difficult to address such challenges as the industry is essentially in practice not regulated, boats are not registered, workers are not registered, and these boats often travel to far away waters.

In addition, there continues to be no clear line of responsibility for related and overlapping authorities to take action on this issue. A serious overhaul of the fishing sector is needed, as is the recruitment processes used to find the much needed workers.

Migrants steering clear?

Although migrants from Myanmar like Wan Yan still appear to be seeking work on Thai fishing boats, the word may be getting out that it is far from a path to riches. The Thai fishing industry is struggling in terms of manpower, and with opportunities in Myanmar improving, though at slow speed, the longterm prognosis for people to man Thai boats is likely to grow bleaker. Hence action is needed.

Migrant workers from Bangladesh are said to be being brought in to ease the problem of labor shortages in the Thai fishing industry, to the tune of tens of thousands of workers. Whether or not the employment of Bangladeshi workers on fishing boats will receive due oversight remains to be seen. Judging by the record so far, the prospects do not look good.

As Wan Yan said, he and his fellow fishermen did not dare claim their salaries when their boat eventually did arrive in port. Those who complain, it is said, are often the ones who end up dead in the sea.

This article first appeared in the August 22 edition of M-ZINE+.

M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

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