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Slavery in fisheries under the spotlight in new project

News: Feb 19, 2019

Thailand, ranked fourth seafood exporter in the world, came under the spotlight in 2014, when numbers of international media exposed how fishworkers, often migrant labourers, have been trafficked, abused and had to work in bad working conditions with irregular payment on Thai fishing boats.

The international scandal influenced the European Union in 2015 to give a yellow card, a warning indicating possible economic sanctions unless Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing practices are eliminated in Thailand. The coming together of labour rights and sustainability in EU’s imposition of reform in Thailand indicates an expanded approach to long-running sustainability challenges in fisheries.

Since 2015 Thailand has adopted a comprehensive program of fisheries reform, driven not only by the EU and the Thai government. Proceeding along with government reforms are increasing activities, initiatives and partnerships among environmental organisations and human rights actors, but also the new Seafood Task Force where Thai and international fishing export companies, NGOs, and government agencies discuss IUU fishing. EU fisheries policy as a set of mandatory standards brings together sustainability and labour rights, but further dynamics between state and non-state actors combine to affect outcomes in the ongoing fisheries reform process.

This is the focus of the new research project Sustaining fish and fishworkers? Human rights for migrant Burmese fishworkers in the EU-initiated sustainable fisheries reform in Thailand. The project is led by Alin Kadfak and Associate Professor Sebastian Linke at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, together with Professor Than Pale, professor at Yangon University in Myanmar. They have been granted SEK 3.6 million from the Swedish Research Council for the project, which will run from 2019 to 2021.

"Our aim is to understand how EU’s fishing policy, as a global governance mechanism, addresses both sustainability and human rights, using Thailand’s fisheries reform as empirical case," said Alin Kadfak, post-doctoral researcher at the School of Global Studies.  

The researchers will carry out in-depth studies in two sites, Thailand and Myanmar. Six months fieldwork in Thailand and three months fieldwork in Myanmar are proposed in order to understand a deeper understanding of regional migration patterns and challenges including those for migrant fishworkers, and recent policy implementation intended to prevent IUU fishing. In Thailand, they hope to be able to map actors and how they influence, negotiate and form alliances in rearranged governance mechanisms during the IUU regulations. They will follow Burmese migrant fishworkers back to Myanmar to understand how the recent fisheries reform shows a positive or negative impact on them.

“This project will speak back to the general public who are end-consumers of Thai seafood product, to open up a halting debate at the moment dominated by trafficking and slavery discourses by international media, and reflect on the more complex mechanisms required to solve the problem,” said Alin Kadfak. “Using Thailand and Myanmar as case studies does not limit our understanding about sustainable fisheries to only South East Asia, but aims to inform about new directions in global fisheries management given the global scope of EU policies, and the all too widespread challenges which are facing the international fishing industry.”

Photo: Nathan Bennett


Alin Kadfak, post-doctoral researcher at the School of Global Studies.

Sebastian Linke, Associate Professor in Environmental Social Science, School of Global Studies.


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