The Thai fishing trade is the world’s fourth largest and is heavily dependant on migrant labour from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. Abuse and forced labour have put the trade under international pressure to push through reform or face sanctions.
There was a European Union threat in 2015 to ban all Thai seafood exports unless rights issues were tackled.
But abuses continue and the US State Department’s 2017 human trafficking report kept Thailand on its Tier-2 list for a second year in a row.
Thai labour minister Adul Sangsingkeo said thousands of workers had been scanned in the opening stages of the programme.
“The ministry has done optical scanning to 70,000 people who work on fishing boats so that we can track their identity,” the military-appointed minister said. “Also we’re in the middle of creating software to read the collected data from the scans.”
The iris data is part of a plan to register workers along with facial and fingerprint scanning.
Petcharat Sinauy, deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Labour, said the purpose of the programme was to ensure workers were on the boat with which they were registered and not being exploited by another ship.
However, amendments to the fishing law were being considered so workers would not be forced to work for the same employer against their will, the labour ministry said.
“It is to find out whether the fisherman is truly in the list of this ship and has not been sold and rotated to work for many ships all the time,” Petcharat explained.
A legal change would allow migrant workers to leave a job without obtaining permission from their employer and be allowed to stay in Thailand while seeking a new job for up to 30 days, rather than the current 15.
Human Rights Watch claimed in a report last month that Thailand had “not taken the steps necessary to end forced labour and other serious abuses on fishing boats”. The activist group said workers were trafficked while they were out at sea, held against their will and not paid on time or below the minimum wage.
The police claimed the operation had led to the prosecution of around 100 trafficking suspects and the rescue of 160 victims since May 2015, after the European Union issued its “yellow card” alert about the industry’s human rights record.
The government said it had cut the number of fishing vessels and set up a hotline that had led to 53 prosecutions.
“We have put our best effort in every measure such as legal enforcement, remedy for the victims, labour protection, seizing the assets of the violators, investigation and prosecution,” Adul told the media. “However, the results are in the hands of the evaluators.”
Sri Thanu beach, Ko Pha Ngan. Picture credit: Wikimedia