Ship to Shore Rights

How a simple upgrade to Thai fishing vessels can help reduce forced labour

A case study from a new ILO report on Thailand’s fishing labour market highlights a solution to improve working conditions and reduce forced labour in the sector through simple technical upgrades on fishing vessels.

News | 19 December 2019
BANGKOK (ILO News) – Against the backdrop of a lop-sided labour market conducive to poor working conditions and forced labour in the Thai fishing industry, a new International Labour Organization (ILO) report, explains how two simple vessel upgrades can increase fishing yields and earnings, reduce the unsustainable pressures on the fishing labour market, and improve the working and living conditions of fishers on vessels.

According to the report entitled Less is more: How policy and technology can impact the Thai labour market for work in fishing, roughly ninety percent of the 60,000 men working on Thailand’s commercial fishing vessels are from Myanmar or Cambodia. They work in difficult conditions for days at sea in crews of 20 - 30, or even 40 men per vessel. Average earnings for these fishers in 2018 was less than USD 400 per month. At these low wage levels and under tough working conditions, the Thai fishing industry and its 5,500 larger commercial vessels struggle to recruit enough workers. This labour market pressure combined with overfishing is squeezing Thai vessel owners, some of whom in turn squeeze their crews. This contributes to forced labour in the Thai fishing industry.

However, a new case study detailed in the ILO report demonstrates that an investment of THB 1.75 million (about USD 56,700) in simple hydraulic ‘power block’ systems and an upgrade to the fish refrigeration systems on a Thai purse seine fishing vessel can lower the number of crew members by nearly 40 percent and improve working conditions and pay. In Thai fishing, there are currently more jobs than fishers, so reducing the workforce with labour-saving improvements to fishing vessels would not leave thousands of fishers jobless. They can be expected to move quickly into jobs on other vessels or into other sectors in the Thai economy where demand is high. The new refrigeration system also bring higher prices for the catch. These new revenues make it possible for purse seiner owners to immediately improve the wages of fishers.

Based on figures from the reconfiguration of a 91-gross tonnage vessel in Pattani Province, the reconfiguration sponsored by the regional fisheries management organization Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) helped reduced operating costs by eight percent in the second year after reconfiguration, and increase net profits by up to 59 percent. At this rate, a THB 2 million (USD 66,700) investment can be recouped in less than 18 months.

There are other benefits. Living and working room for fishers improves as the number of men on board decreases. Turnover of fishers falls from 30 percent per year to nearly zero because the hard work of hauling in fishing nets is now done largely by the power block system. This means the owner can spend less time recruiting and training new workers.

Hydraulic power block hauling the fishing nets ©SEAFDEC
Finally, SEAFDEC estimates that the resale value of the boat after the reconfiguration is about THB 10 million, an increase of two-thirds from its THB 6 - 7 million value before the changes. That adds up to a rapid return on investment and win-win results for employers, workers, and the Thai government.

When asked about the implementation challenges in Thailand, Mr. Graeme Buckley, ILO Director for Thailand, Cambodia and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, explains: “Lending to the Thai fishing industry is considered risky business. The turmoil of the last few years brought on by illegal fishing and forced labour -- plus the real risk of losing markets in Europe and the US -- has made it hard for vessel owners and their banks to know what is ahead.”

“A programme of loan guarantees to support lending for purse seiner reconfigurations could help reduce the risk for Thai banks. A loan guarantee programme that supports USD 5 million in lending, for example, could help reconfigure 80 - 100 vessels (of Thailand’s roughly 900 large purse seiners) in a two-year cycle.” Mr. Buckley adds. Stressing that any lending programme would have to include independent verification of the borrowers’ compliance with Thai law and the ILO’s core labour standards, “Some Thai vessels and ports have chronic wage payment problems that, until ended and verified, would prevent them from joining a lending programme.” says Mr. Buckley.

The ILO report published by the ILO ‘Ship to Shore Rights’ project funded by European Union also provides concrete recommendations/suggestions on how to proceed to support fishing vessels upgrade and spur changes in the industry.

About ILO Ship to Shore Rights Project

The EU-funded ILO Ship to Shore Rights Project aims to prevent and reduce forced labour, child labour and other unacceptable forms of work, and progressively eliminate the exploitation of workers, particularly migrant workers, in the Thai fishing and seafood processing sectors by cooperating with the Ministry of Labour, other government agencies, and social partners.

For further information, please contact Mr. Vasu Thirasak, National Project Coordinator, at +66 (0)98 592 9565, or email: