For over 15 years the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has worked to expose and resolve environmental destruction and associated human rights abuses.

Throughout this time, we have focused on working in difficult and dangerous countries like Uzbekistan, Sierra Leone and Liberia and we have targeted the worst abuses and the most powerful people behind them. We were used to trouble, but still this had not prepared us for the scope and the magnitude of abuse and human rights violations in the Thai seafood industry.  

The Thai seafood sector is big business. The country is the world’s third largest exporter of seafood, in 2013 sending around $7 billion worth of fish to overseas markets like the European Union and the US. Thai seafood has made some people very, very rich. But it has also been behind the cause of horrifying human misery and the decimation of marine life in the Gulf of Thailand, Andaman Sea and beyond. How, and why, has this happened?

The Thai seafood industry has grown continuously since the 1960s; however management of the fishing vessels and of the entire sector has been appalling. A lack of controls, together with extensive corruption across the sector, resulted in massive over-fishing of Thai marine territories (and further afield), such that most of the high-value commercial species, and much of the astonishing wildlife that once populated these waters, has been wiped out. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, World Humanitarian Day

By 2015, the volume of fish Thai vessels were able to catch was just 14 per cent of that from the late 1960s, despite the more efficient fishing gear and greater fishing effort – they had fished out their waters.

We were used to trouble, but still this had not prepared us for the scope and the magnitude of abuse and human rights violations in the Thai seafood industry.  

This has created powerful economic incentives for wrong-doing among the fishing companies that now struggle to make a legal profit in Thailand’s degraded waters. And it is this downward economic spiral of mismanagement and over-fishing that, along with a number of other important economic, social, cultural and political factors, has driven the massive use of trafficked workers in the sector.

While exhausted fish stocks pushed fishing vessels to stay out at sea longer, travel further afield, and fish harder for a diminishing catch, operators increasingly turned to trafficked workers, many of whom have been forced to work in brutal conditions as bonded or slave labour, to cut costs and keep profits.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Oceans, World Humanitarian Day, EJF

Migrant workers, largely coming from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have filled the labour shortage in the Thai seafood sector. Seeking employment and income from the relatively rich Thai economy, tens of thousands of migrant workers have been trafficked into the country and, without legal rights, status or proper documentation; large numbers of workers have been tricked into working on Thai fishing vessels. Here, they have been forced into slave or bonded labour, in dangerous, harsh and degrading conditions, and have been violently abused and denied basic rights or pay.

But what shocked me about these abuses was the common and repeated use of the most extreme forms of violence – the murder of so many of these vulnerable migrant workers. When EJF began to raise the alarm on the scope and scale of this abuse many denied it. But without great effort it was easy to find others who could corroborate our claims, while our own investigations were able to demonstrate case after, after case, after case. 

But what shocked me about these abuses was the common and repeated use of the most extreme forms of violence – the murder of so many of these vulnerable migrant workers.

One study by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) showed that 59 per cent of people working on Thai fishing vessels had witnessed executions at sea. Other studies, both before and since EJF began its investigations, have come to the same conclusion. Articles by the Guardian, Associated Press and New York Times all tell a similar story. And the number of individual witness testimonies to slavery, violence and murder is growing.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Oceans, World Humanitarian Day, EJF

My view and EJF’s view is that such abuses have no place in our world. Extreme abuses suffered by vulnerable people, to provide for an industry that has been supplying consumers in the European Union, United States and elsewhere with cheap “luxury” seafood products, processed meals for our pets, and ready-meals for our busy lives must not, cannot ever be acceptable.

We can vote with our wallets and demand seafood products that are legal, sustainable and ethical.

But perhaps more importantly, now that we do know what is really going on, we can work together to end this slavery and violence. We can vote with our wallets and demand seafood products that are legal, sustainable and ethical. We can pay a price that reflects the true cost and not buy the “cheap” products that may have been produced at the cost of the devastation of our seas and oceans, or a worker’s dignity, liberty or even life. This also creates good opportunities for businesses with a clean supply chain and ethically sourced seafood to step in and claim their share of the market.

We need to recognise our role as consumers, paying a bit more to have well-managed fisheries that protect marine biodiversity as they protect human rights and freedoms. There is no magic needed; it can be done, but Governments, businesses and you, the consumer, need to work together and insist it is done – and done without delay.  

If you want to know more about the issues in the Thai seafood industry and what can be done, please check out the latest investigative film by the Environmental Justice Foundation.

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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