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Slave and forced labor in the seafood industry, Thailand


Thailand is one of the biggest seafood exporters in the world. However, working conditions in the seafood industry have been quite contentious, and forced labor and other rights abuses are widespread in Thailand’s fishing fleets and processing sectors despite government and industry commitments to undertake comprehensive reforms.

Especially migrant fishermen from neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia are often trafficked into fishing work, prevented from changing employers, not paid on time and paid below the minimum wage. Migrant workers do not receive Thai labor law protections and do not have the right to form a labor union. [4]

Forced labor appears in different forms: physically or due to the threats like retention of documents, debt bondage, excessive overtime or withholding of wages; and in fisheries, it is also linked with the race to the fish. [4, 15, 16, 17]. Human Rights Watch argues that the steps taken by the Thai government and organisations such as National Fisheries Association are not sufficient. [4]

One of the most significant examples of reforms undertaken by the Thai government has been the legalisation of migrant fishers' status in Thailand by issuing them identity cards, known as "pink cards". The pink card holders were supposed to receive all their rights and protection ensured by the Thai Labor Law. However, these cards are taken by the employer or captain who usually do not allow them to take their pink cards back neither to change their jobs. This shows that the reforms have vastly failed [4].

The serious situation of forced and even slave labor in Thai seafood industry has become more apparent and drew more international attention especially after the news of Associate Press published in 2014 [10], and it has become a bigger issue thanks to the work and struggle of a range of justice organisations including Migrant Worker Rights Network and Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and official reports of human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch [3].

In 2013, an ILO survey of nearly 600 workers in the Thai fishing industry found that almost none had a signed contract, and about 40 percent had wages cut without explanation. In 2014, the unlawful acts and terrible conditions endured by migrant workers have been documented, who often are tricked by labor recruiters and sold into bondage. Estimates of migrant workers in Thailand range from 200,000 to 500,000 [1, 2, 5, 7, 8].

US and European based organisations such Environmental Justice Foundation and Fairfood International made pressure on retailers such as Nestle, Lidl, Tesco, among others, and on different political actors in order to avoid human rights abuses in Thai seafood sector and in the global seafood chain. However, these initiatives and reports have usually received negative reactions from  the Thai  officials such as Thailand's Ministry of Affairs. Even though in 2014, the Ministry of Labor in Thailand took legal actions against 156 labor brokers who violated labor laws and arrested 107 illegal brokers, Environmental Justice Foundation's representatives claimed that “Producers and consumers of Thai seafood are embroiled in one of the most outrageous social and ecological crimes of the 21st century. Ecosystem decline and slavery exist in a vicious cycle” [8].

Moreover, in 2015, around 45 labor groups and NGOs including the International Trade Union Confederation and the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) sent a letter to the Thai prime minister protesting a proposed plan to use prison labor on fishing boats. The letter states that the plan threatens the human rights of prisoners and goes against the International Labor Organization’s convention on forced labor [1]. 

Thus, the entire chain of Asian seafood production and processing based on forced and slave labor and its connections with the retailers in UK and US have been documented [2, 5, 7, 8]. Thanks to dedicated investigations and growing struggle to protect human and labor rights in seafood industry, more than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been freed in 2015, a dozen people have been arrested who were responsible for human rights violations, and millions of dollars have been seized and proposals for new federal laws have been proposed [10].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Slave and forced labor in the seafood industry, Thailand

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Shrimps
Other types of seafood

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, and its fishery production accounts for 8 billion dollars annually. The sector employs about 300,000 people although official records are not available nor reliable. [14]

In November 2015, Nestlé, one of the world’s biggest food and beverage company, declared publicly that it had found forced labour in its supply chains in Thailand. [2] The reports of many US and European based organisations such Environmental Justice Foundation and Fairfood International points out to the global seafood chain and that the food companies and retailers such as Nestle, Lidl, Tesco, Carrefour, among others, are also responsible for the human rights abuses in Thai seafood sector [8].

Type of populationUnknown
Affected Population:1,500,000-2,000,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/2014
Relevant government actors:The Thai government; Fisheries Ministry; Ministry of Affairs; PIPOs (port-in port-out centers)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Anti-slavery International:;
Human Rights Watch:;
Greenpeace Southeast Asia:;
Solidarity Center:;
FishWise (US);
Chab Dai Coalition (Cambodia);
Kontra (Indonesia) [9];
Migrant Worker Rights Network [8];
Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) [8]

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Industrial workers
Informal workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Migrant workers
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Boycotts of companies-products


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Violations of human rights, Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsSlave labor, forced labor, loss of freedom


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Under negotiation
Proposal and development of alternatives:There have been proposals to give pink cards (i.e. identity cards) to migrant workers and PIPOs (port-in port-out centers) to control the worker rights, but most of them have failed to ensure the worker rights and to identify right violations. [4]
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:There have been some improvements in the laws and legislations due to the struggle of human rights organisations and local initiatives, but the legislations have not made sufficient steps to protect labor and human rights. Moreover, there are usually problems of monitoring and implementation.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Under the shadow: Forced labour among sea fishers in Thailand (Chantavanich et al., 2016. Marine Policy, 68, pp. 1-7). [12]

Slavery scandals: Unpacking labour challenges and policy responses within the off-shore fisheries sector (Marschke and Vandergeest, 2016. Marine Policy 68, pp. 39-46) [11]

From Sea Slaves to Slime Lines: Commodification and Unequal Ecological Exchange in Global Marine Fisheries (Clark, Longo, Clausen and Auerbach 2018; Ecologically Unequal Exchange, pp. 195-219). [13]

Modern slave ships overfish the oceans (Climate&Capitalism) [16]

Modern slavery and the race to fish (Tickler et al., Nature Communications, 2018) [15]

Hidden Chains: Rights Abuses and Forced Labor in Thailand’s Fishing Industry (Human Rights Watch, 23.01.2018) [3]

Revealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UK (The Guardian, 10.06.2014) [7]

Thai seafood: are the prawns on your plate still fished by slaves? (The Guardian, 23.01.2018) [6]

2015 timeline: A year in Thai labor scandals (Undercurrentnews, 04.01.2016) [8]

International condemnation hits Thailand over plan to use prisoners in fishing industry (Undercurrent news, 14.01.2015) [9]

Global supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves (AP, 14.12.2015) [10]

45 groups protest prison labor on Thai fishing boats (Solidarity Center, 15.01.2015) [1]

Thailand struggles with dark side of vital fishing industry (The Bangkok Post, 25.12.2014) [14]

The Global Slavery Index (GSI) [17]

The Global Slavery Index [17]

Nestlé admits slavery in Thailand while fighting child labour lawsuit in Ivory Coast (The Guardian, 01.02.2016) [2]

Trafficked into slavery on Thai trawlers to catch food for prawns.

The Guardian, 10.06.2014 [5]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Thailand: Forced Labor, Trafficking Persist in Fishing Fleets (Human Rights Watch, 22.01.2018) [4]

Meta information

Contributor:Irmak Ertör, ENVJUSTICE, ICTA-UAB
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3637



Burmese migrant workers

Source: The Guardian -