Almost 30 Thai and Burmese fishermen facing exploitation on deep-sea fishing trawlers in Indonesian waters recently sought help from a labour rights network, said an activist.
Six Thais will be the first batch of the fishermen to return to the country today, three of whom are believed to be human trafficking victims, Patima Tangpratchayakul of the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) said during a seminar at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University economics faculty.
Staff from the foundation visited Indonesia’s Ambon island between 24 August and 29 August to inspect the conditions of several deep-sea trawlers and met 10 Thai and 19 Burmese fishermen who wanted to return home, she said.
Some had been trafficked into forced labour aboard the fishing vessels, but were never paid.
Others had been persuaded to work on a one-year contract, but were not allowed to leave once the contract had expired, said the activist.
“There are several problems faced by the fishermen, including falsification of travel documents and seaman’s books. Some falsified seaman’s books had the names of Thai crewmen, but used images of migrant workers. Other workers had their documents seized,” said Ms Patima.
Many Thai and Burmese workers escaped the fishing trawlers after facing exploitation and abuse and became illegal workers on the Indonesian island.
They took refuge on the island instead of seeking help from other trawlers as they feared they might end up being slaves on another boat, she said.
After learning about their plight, the LPN worked with Thai and Indonesian authorities to help the fishermen. Burma’s authorities were also contacted to help their nationals.
Between 2006 and 2014, a total of 128 crew members, including 112 Burmese nationals and 16 Thais, sought the LPN’s help.
In August this year, one crew member was so severely assaulted by his employer that his nervous system was damaged, causing him to lose the use of his right arm, said the activist.
He received only 5,000 baht (US$160) in compensation from his employer, she added.
Surachai, a former Burmese crew member who worked on a deep-sea trawler for six years, said he had been persuaded by the boat’s skipper to work aboard his trawler for one year. After a year had passed, the captain forced him to stay out at sea for another five years, the seminar was told.
Abhisit Techanitisawat, the former chairman of the Deep-Sea Trawlers Association, said there were both good and bad fishing trawler skippers.
The skippers who exploit and abuse fishermen had placed the Thai fishing industry in a negative light in the eyes of the international community, he said.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on 1 October 2014.