December 22, 2015


Thailand's tarnished seafood on spotlight again



Thailand's seafood industry has again caught world attention after the Associated Press reported on the slave-labour condition in its shrimp-peeling work stations.


On Monday, Thai government spokesmen denied the AP report that found "enslaved migrant workers and children" in Thailand's seafood industry. "The report was wrong….", government spokesman Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post.


The AP had said that "[p]ervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world's biggest shrimp providers", adding that despite "repeated promises by businesses and government to clean up the country's $7 billion seafood export industry, abuses persist".


Sansern said that government men involved in human trafficking were being punished and that they faced both disciplinary and criminal action.


Navy deputy secretary-general Jumpol Lumikanont also claimed that the AP was describing the "slave-like" working condition at a shrimp-peeling mill in Samut Sakhon province as of Nov. 9, when authorities were already tackling labour abuse in that province. 


National priority


Jumpol insisted that ending labour abuse and human trafficking was the government's national priority.


The AP, meanwhile, said it stood by its report.


"We stand firmly behind our reporters' coverage, which has been scrupulous, thorough and fair," said Paul Colford, an AP vice president and director of media relations. 


On Friday, Dec. 18, four days after the AP report came out, the European Union warned Thailand faced the prospect of EU seafood import ban if it didn't address promptly the slavery issues besetting its seafood industry.


Thailand is currently under the EU's "yellow card" list due to these issues, and its seafood import tariffs have been tripled.


EU delegation to visit Thailand


Thai seafood exports to the EU are valued at between 575 million and 730 million euros ($624 million to $792 million) annually, according to the AP.


Meanwhile, an EU delegation is scheduled to visit Thailand in January to check on the progress of the country's effort to address the human trafficking and slave-labour issues in its seafood industry.


Because of the AP report and the EU delegation's forthcoming visit, the industry is doing something on its own.


The Thai Union Group Plc, for one, said last week that starting Jan. 1 next year, it would start processing shrimps in-house, doing away with subcontracted external pre-processors, so it can have full oversight of all processing stages.


On Monday, the Thai Frozen Foods Association said its members had decided to follow Thai Union's example, also effective Jan. 1.


Will the world's third-largest seafood exporter escape the EU's threat of a seafood import ban? Will it eventually shed the slave-labour image of its seafood industry?


Much depends on the promise of the Thai government and on the clean-up work by the industry itself. -- Rick Alberto

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