On 5 August 2018, Mekong Migration Network (MMN) organised a workshop entitled “Frameworks on Migrant Labour in the Fishing Industry in the Mekong” at the Empress Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The workshop aimed to: 1) clarify the concepts of various frameworks surrounding/relating to labour migration, such as trafficking, slavery, forced labour, etc; 2) examine the implications of these frameworks on labour migration, particularly on migrant labour in fisheries; and 3) exchange views on what can be done to protect the rights of migrant workers and their families in fisheries. Approximately 30 representatives of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on labour migration throughout the Greater Mekong Sub-region attended the workshop.
The workshop started with a presentation by Ms. Jackie Pollock, a representative from the International Labour Organization (ILO), Myanmar, who clarified the concepts of various frameworks. Ms. Pollock provided definitions on the key terms often applied to the conditions of migrant labour in the fishing industry, including human trafficking, smuggling, forced labour, slavery and decent work. She emphasised that international laws do not clearly specify the situations under which each framework should be adopted. This has led to the different approaches adopted to address the exploitation of migrants in the fishing industry, including the 3Ps/4Ps (Prevention, Protection, Prosecution & and Partnership), anti-slavery, corporate social responsibility, United Nation Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Decent Work and FLEX (Focus on Labour Exploitation). During the discussion following the presentation, Ms. Pollock also pointed out the need to challenge the Thai government’s use of an anti-trafficking framework to address the issues in the fishing industry. Such a framework draws energy, resources and commitment away from the empowerment of migrants and the promotion of their labour rights, and instead places its focus on prosecuting traffickers and victimising migrants. She believed that the government’s adoption of this framework reflects its fear that migrants would be able to unionise, exercise their rights and become a threat to be reckoned with.
The plenary session was followed by the screening of a recent Human Rights Watch’s documentary entitled, “Thailand: Forced Labour, Trafficking Persist in Fishing Fleets,” which explores the changes (and the lack thereof) in the fishing industry after the Thai government stepped up its efforts to stop human trafficking and forced labour in the industry. To view the documentary, please visit: https://youtu.be/8FbrfgRmfyI.
In the second plenary entitled, “Understanding the Day-to-Day Reality of Working at Sea”, Mr. Sompong Srakaew from the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) presented on the situation of migrant workers in the fishing industry in Thailand and LPN’s initiatives to provide assistance to workers in the industry. Mr. Sompong expressed his concerns about the effectiveness of government measures, especially the implementation of mechanisms to manage and protect migrant workers. In one case where several fishery workers were stranded in Indonesia and continued to endure physical abuse and severe working conditions that sometimes resulted in their deaths, the Thai government only offered support to the Thai workers on board, rather than the Myanmar and Cambodian workers who were also on the Thai vessel. In light of this, LPN aims to support both Thai and migrant fishery workers by assisting them in forming unions to raise their voices and promote their rights.
Mr. Tun Lin from the Thai and Migrant Fisheries Union Group (TMFG) then presented on his 11 years of experience working as a fishery worker. He spoke of the exploitative and rights-violating practices that he lived through first hand, such as not being paid his salary, not receiving rest periods even when he was sick, and not being compensated when he lost his fingers from an accident in Indonesia–experiences that motivated him to become a migrant leader and collaborate with Thai fishery workers to help other migrants exercise their rights. Mr. Tun Lin and LPN’s mission to assist fishery workers stranded in Indonesia was filmed and made into a documentary titled, “Ghost Fleets”. For further information about the documentary, please visit: http://www.vulcanproductions.com/ghostfleet/TheFilm.
In the last plenary entitled, “How are different frameworks used to understand the situation of migrant labour in the fishing industry and what are the implications for policy and programme formulation?”, Mr. Sokchar Mom from Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW) discussed the frameworks adopted in Cambodia to protect fishery workers. Mr. Mom noted that laws and policies related to migrants in the fishing industry in Cambodia remain unclear, as the government neither regulates nor bans practices in the industry, which causes migrants to become more vulnerable. He highlighted that current protection programmes focused on trafficked victims have been established under multi-responsive approaches, but seemed to fail when people under the programme continue to re-migrate instead of going through the government assistance process.
Mr. Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch (HRW) then shared the findings of a recent HRW report that discussed the ongoing cases of forced labour in the fishing industry. Despite the Thai government’s efforts to regulate migration and employment in the fishing industry, unlicensed brokers continue to operate and working conditions have not improved in reality. HRW key recommendations include: drafting a stand-alone law on forced labour, ending restrictions on freedom of movement, granting permission to travel out of province, delinking the status of migrant workers to their employers, implementing an effective complaint mechanisms, publishing a watch list of companies and CEOs with history of Trafficking In Person (TIP) and forced labour, amending the Labour Relations Act to permit migrant workers to form and lead their own unions, ratifying ILO Conventions 87 on the Freedom of Association, Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collectively Bargain, and Convention 188 on work in Fishing.
In the ensuing discussion, participants raised their concerns with the ongoing harsh working conditions in the fishing industry and the dysfunctional protection mechanisms. Aside from the ineffective laws and regulations concerning migration management, fishing associations often serve as additional obstacles to migrants obtaining and exercising their full rights. Participants also shared their own experiences with advocating for migrant workers’ rights and made suggestions on advocacy strategies to more effectively promote migrant workers’ rights in the fishing industry.