Promoting Fair Labor for Migrant Workers in Thailand’s Seafood Supply Chain

May 23, 2022 4 minute read

Fisherman working on a boat with fish to maximize Thailand's seafood supply chain

Thailand is the third-largest seafood exporter and the leading shrimp exporter globally. The Thai fishing industry—which employs a significant population of migrant workers—is also particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labor.

Workers in the sector report wage withholding, debt bondage, excessive work hours, unsafe work and living conditions, confiscation of identification or work documents, physical and emotional abuse, isolation, deception, and more. 

Starting in 2018, Mars Petcare teamed up with the USAID Asia Countering Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) project and the USAID Thailand CTIP project to design and pilot new solutions to protect migrant workers and advance human rights in the Thai fishing sector.   

As a sub-implementer to Winrock International on these two USAID CTIP projects, Resonance guided design and co-creation, coordination, and implementation for this multistakeholder collaboration

The Integrated Business and Impact Case

Improving labor conditions in global supply chains is a key area of alignment between the private sector and the global development community. According to the ILO in 2017, an estimated 40.3 million people are trapped in situations of modern slavery worldwide.

Seafood—with its complicated and multitiered supply chain—is just one of many industries rife with human rights abuses and human trafficking.

Resonance helped facilitate and implement a dynamic collaboration between Mars Petcare and the USAID CTIP projects to improve worker safety and well-being in the seafood supply chain and to reduce risks of unfair labor practices in the fishing industry in Thailand.

Through this work, Mars Petcare seeks to increase supply chain transparency and advance respect for human rights along with ensuring quality of its products and building trust among consumers as the leading pet care company worldwide. 

Labor Risks in Thailand's Fish Industry

Together, Mars Petcare and the USAID CTIP projects designed a collaboration that look to address three key risk factors for harmful labor practices in the Thai fishing industry. 

1. Lack of Connectivity at Sea for Workers on Vessels 

Select commercial fishing vessels, such as trawlers, are often out at sea for extended periods—sometimes weeks at a time. Lack of connectivity options at sea means that workers are unable to contact authorities or family to call for help in the event of an emergency, which greatly increases worker risk for abuse and exploitation while at sea 

2. Limited Understanding and Use of Grievance Response Protocols 

Migrant workers often do not know their rights, how to navigate the landscape of authorities and resources available to support them, or the steps to file a complaint and seek remediation. 

 3. Exploitative Recruitment Practices 

Migrant workers in Thailand, particularly those who lack legal status, are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation during the recruitment process. They often pay exorbitant fees to recruitment agents and/or employers in exchange for job placement and to procure work documents, making them vulnerable to debt bondage and limited freedom of movement. 

Addressing Identified Labor Risks Through Collaboration 

Through co-creation workshops and inclusive design sessions, Resonance helped the team design a four-part collaboration to address these challenges.

1. Pilot Affordable Two-Way Communication Technology at Sea

Following a rigorous technology assessment, the team selected a two-way “plotter technology” as the most economical, feasible, sustainable, and scalable solution. The technology enables direct access to fishing crews and/or workers via their mobile devices, functionality at sea beyond cellular range through satellite broadband and satellite tracking, and affordable equipment and operational costs. 

The team piloted the technology on 20 fishing vessels in Phuket in collaboration with diverse local stakeholders. 

2. Establish Effective Grievance Response Protocol  

The team conducted a robust mapping exercise—the first of its kind in Phuket—to identify and document the landscape of stakeholders with a role in migrant worker protection and empowerment. From this exercise, the team outlined a clear grievance response protocol in an accessible booklet (available in Burmese, Khmer, and Thai) for use by migrant workers, organizations that support them, and relevant government agencies. 

The USAID Thailand CTIP project also established the Migrant Development Center (MDC) in Phuket port, as a first point of contact for worker grievances, calls for help, and queries via the connectivity at sea application. The MDC connects workers to critical information and resources and, where needed, fields worker grievances to appropriate authorities.  

3. Deploy a Blockchain-Powered Digital App for Recruitment 

To address the complex challenge of responsible recruitment, the team engaged technology provider Diginex Solutions to develop and test a blockchain-powered digital application called Doc2Work. Doc2Work—rigorously designed and tested with target users—helps migrant fishers better understand and navigate the process to legally stay and work in Thailand.  

Through the app, users can identify the documentation needed to achieve regularization status, safely and securely store personal documents, and access support services and important information about their rights and the regularization process. (Achieving regularization status affords migrant workers full protection under the law, thus reducing their vulnerability to exploitative labor practices.) 

Doc2Work was soft launched in May 2021 on the Google Play Store, available in Thai, Khmer, and Burmese.  Since then—following a successful and informative pilot phase—the team launched Doc2Work 3.0, expanding the target audience to migrants beyond the fishing industry.

4. Industry and Government Engagement

To increase the collaboration’s scale, impact, and sustainability, the team has invested in outreach to relevant government actors and industry players. Such engagement is a critical step to scale the connectivity at sea technology to hundreds—or even thousands—of new vessels in Thailand and beyond; or to broaden the use of Doc2Work to new sectors such as agriculture, construction, or domestic work by encouraging use by suppliers and their recruitment agents.  

Looking Ahead: Continued Collaboration for Ethical Supply Chains 

Across this work, we’ve seen how collaboration can encourage risk-taking and innovation, by letting team members combine strengths and share risks and rewards.  

Now the work is continuing: Mars Petcare and the USAID CTIP projects are currently implementing a subsequent phase of collaboration that focuses on further developing and scaling pilot activities. This includes expanding access to the connectivity at sea application to workers on vessels, promoting uptake of Doc2Work, and amplifying industry engagement to scale impact and reach.  

Complex problems call for big ideas and sustained commitment. Through collaboration and innovation, Mars Petcare and USAID have delved deep into the drivers and manifestations of labor abuses in the seafood industry in Thailand. 

We look forward to witnessing just what’s possible in the coming years. 

Some of the above content was excerpted and/or adapted from a recently released Learning Brief from USAID, Resonance, Winrock, and Mars Petcare: Embracing Multistakeholder Collaboration to Positively Impact Workers in Thailand’s Seafood Supply Chain and Beyond.

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