Thailand Won’t Send Prisoners Into The Sea
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

Thailand Won’t Send Prisoners Into The Sea


Thailand has abandoned a controversial plan to put prisoners to work in the country’s abuse-ridden, labor-starved fishing industry following international furor that the scheme violates human rights.

According to Reuters, Thailand’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the plan had been withdrawn, branding it merely an “exploratory idea” as part of a broader government policy of helping prisoners reintegrate into society.

Thailand, the world’s third largest seafood exporter, employs more than 300,000 people – many of them illegal immigrants – in its labor-starved fishing industry. In December, the Ministry of Labor (MoL) said it would send consenting prisoners with less than a year left of their sentences to work on fishing vessels, promoting the move as a way to tackle human trafficking.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But the plan led to international outrage among rights groups. Forty-five of those groups wrote a letter directly to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha dated January 14 which argued that the prisoners would be subject to the same brutal and inhumane conditions that migrant workers are, including trafficking, debt bondage and physical abuse. Those conditions, the letter argued, largely account for the prevailing labor shortage in the fishing industry in the first place.

“Simply replacing vulnerable migrant workers with released prisoners will not solve the abusive working conditions and many other problems present in the Thai fishing industry,” the letter read.

In the letter, the groups also threatened to take their grievances to the U.S. State Department as it evaluates Bangkok’s performance on human trafficking in its widely-read annual report. As The Diplomat has previously reported, Thailand’s ruling junta, which seized power in a coup last May, has been looking to improve the country’s record on trafficking since it was dropped to the lowest level in the report in June 2014.

“If this program goes forward, we will raise our concerns with the United States Department of State as it considers how to assess Thailand’s performance on trafficking in persons (TIP) in the coming months,” the groups warned in the letter.

Following the international uproar, the Thai government began to backtrack on the proposal. Last Thursday, the MoL deputy permanent secretary Arak Bhramanee clarified that the plan was part of a broader idea to provide job opportunities to all groups, rather than just prisoners, and that working in the fishing industry was just one of several potential occupations for inmates.

On January 17, The Bangkok Post reported that Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee had downplayed the idea as nothing more than a possibility raised at a roundtable discussion, and emphasized that the idea was scrapped following discussions with several parties, including the fishing industry itself. Sek also stressed that Thailand valued the importance of human rights.

Tuesday’s statement confirmed that the plan was no longer in the works.

“Common sense has prevailed,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, one of the groups that wrote the letter to the Thai prime minister. “This was an incredibly bad idea from the outset because the government wasn’t going to be able to offer any human rights protection to the people on these boats.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief