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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Thailand scans fishermen's eyes to cut slavery

Documented abuses and forced labour have put the trade under pressure to clean up its act or face consequences

Vietnamese fishermen are held at a police station after being detained in Thai waters for illegal fishing. Madaree Tohlala/AFP
Vietnamese fishermen are held at a police station after being detained in Thai waters for illegal fishing. Madaree Tohlala/AFP

Thailand is using optical scanning technology to keep track of who is working on its fishing boats, officials said, as the kingdom tries to curb slave labour and human trafficking that has riddled the low-paid industry.

The lucrative fishing business is the fourth-largest in the world and is heavily dependant on migrant labour from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, but documented abuses and forced labour have put the trade under pressure to clean up its act or face consequences.

Thailand's government led the push to overhaul the industry in response to a European Union threat in 2015 to ban all Thai seafood products unless issues were addressed.

But rights groups say abuses have continued despite widely publicised reforms while the US State Department's 2017 Trafficking in Persons report kept Thailand on its Tier 2 Watchlist for a second consecutive year.

At a briefing in Bangkok last week to trumpet reforms in the industry, Labour Minister Adul Sangsingkeo said tens of thousands of workers had been scanned but the roll out was still in the early stages.

"The ministry has done optical scanning to 70,000 people who work on fishing boats so that we can track their identity," he said. "Also we're in the middle of creating a software to read the collected data from the scans."

The program, which captures data from the iris, started in October and is part of an overarching plan to register workers. The government is also adopting measures for facial and fingerprint scanning.

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Petcharat Sinauy, deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Labour, said the purpose of the stepped up tech was to make sure workers were on the boat they were registered with and not farmed out to another vessel.

"It is to find out whether the fisherman is truly in the list of this ship and has not been sold and rotated to work for many ships all the time," she said.

A report released by Human Rights Watch last month said forced labour and other rights abuses remained "widespread" and that little had been done to rein in worker exploitation.

Thai police say a crackdown has led to the prosecution of some 100 trafficking suspects and the rescue of 160 victims since May 2015, when the EU issued its "yellow card" warning about seafood products.

The government has also reduced the number of fishing fleets and created a hotline that resulted in the prosecution of 53 cases.