Thai prisoners forced to make fishing nets under threat of violence

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REUTERS

BANGKOK – Thai prisoners are forced to make fishing nets for private companies under threat of sanctions, including beatings and delayed release, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has revealed.

Prisons across the country are using inmates to perform high-value contracts with Thai manufacturers, including one that exports bed nets to the United States, according to documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FoI) rules.

Former prisoners interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said prison guards threatened to beat them with batons, withdraw the right to wash or postpone their release date if they failed to meet targets strict. The work was compulsory, but paid only a fraction of the Thai minimum wage and some workers were not paid at all, they said.

“(The officers) would say that if we didn’t make five mosquito nets a week, we would be punished,” a former inmate at Surin Central Prison in northeast Thailand said in a telephone interview. “It was 2 p.m. one day and I couldn’t finish the nets on time, so I was forced to lie in the sun and turn around in the dirt,” said Ta, who was released. last year after serving two years. and asked to be identified only by his nickname.

The Thai prison service said on Friday it did not force prisoners to work under threat of violence, noting that this would be “unacceptable”. “All payments to detainees comply with regulations … including the production of fishing nets,” department spokesman Thawatchai Chaiyawat added in a statement.

Ta said he made three baht (9 cents) per net. The minimum wage in Thailand ranges from 313 to 336 baht per day, depending on the province. Most of the prisoners who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they earned the equivalent of around 30 baht per month, although some said they received no pay.

Thailand has the largest prison population in Southeast Asia, with around 282,000 inmates in its 143 prisons, most of them convicted of drugs. Prisons are severely overcrowded and do not meet international standards, according to a recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The prison labor program was intended to provide on-the-job training that could help inmates get paid work after release, according to prison service promotional material.

But rights groups, including FIDH, say it has become an act of exploitation, citing low wages, difficult working conditions and the use of sanctions when workers do not respect quotas. The work is mostly manual and ranges from folding paper bags for retailers to making clothes.

Ex-prisoners who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said making fishing nets was particularly difficult, leaving them with painful blisters and cuts caused by the sharp fibers. They said most inmates had to work unless they had ties to prison officers, paid a bribe, or gave money to others to do the work on their behalf.

A senior judicial official said the practice could violate Thailand’s anti-trafficking law if the work was done for the benefit of private companies, adding that further investigations were needed. “These prisoners do not work voluntarily and they are unable to refuse to work because of the threat of a sanction, such as being physically injured,” said Pravit Roykaew, prosecutor and deputy director general of the Department of Human Rights Law. people.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation sent FoI requests to 142 prisons, 54 of which disclosed contracts with companies or individuals to produce fishing nets. Another 30 responded and disclosed contracts in other sectors, while the rest either did not respond or did not use prison labor.

Most prisons that disclosed contracts redacted company and individual names, citing an order from the Department of Corrections. The Thomson Reuters Foundation obtained redacted names after submitting appeals.

Among them, Thailand’s largest net maker Khon Kaen Fishing Net Factory (KKF), which last year sold 2,364 tonnes of fishing nets worth around $ 12 million to the United States. , according to a recent report by Maia Research. KKF has asked at least one prison not to disclose its contracts in connection with FoI requests, a letter from the company viewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed.

The company declined to comment when contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The US Department of Labor (DoL) said it was “concerned about the allegation that prisons in Thailand are using inmates to produce fishing nets for private companies,” stressing that the tariff law prohibits the import of goods produced by prison or forced labor. “We take all types of information into consideration when compiling our list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor,” he said in an emailed statement, referring to a biennial list of goods expected to be produced in this way. “This includes information gathered through research, investigative reporting or other means. “

Thailand has been under pressure for years to tackle abuses in its multibillion-dollar seafood industry, including human trafficking, forced labor and violence on ships and at onshore processing facilities. . In recent years, the Southeast Asian nation has improved its record when it comes to modern slavery.

In its latest annual report, the United States said Thailand is making significant efforts to eradicate trafficking, including improving coordination with civil society, even though official corruption undermines anti-trafficking efforts.

Prisoners were put to work for centuries, dredging waterways in 18ecentury in England to the manufacture of weapons in the Soviet gulags or to the countless mining and manufacturing projects that still operate today.

Some 560,000 detainees were subjected to forced labor for the benefit of individuals or organizations in 2016 – the most recent statistics available – according to the anti-slavery group Alliance 8.7. The United Nations Global Guidelines on How to Treat Prisoners – known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules” – call on member states to put in place “a system of fair compensation for the work of prisoners”.

At Yala Central Prison in southern Thailand, hundreds of inmates are said to produce fishing nets for about six hours a day Monday through Friday, according to two former inmates released this year. Neither was directly punished, but both said they saw other inmates being punished.

“I saw my friends being punished every day. I have been told that prison guards are not supposed to hurt inmates, but in reality prisons are not inspected, ”one said, speaking on condition of anonymity. . “(The prisoners) would be hit in the back with a baseball bat and placed in solitary confinement. “

“No visits would be allowed because they (the officers) are afraid that the prisoners will tell their relatives about it. “

None of the former prisoners interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation continued to make fishing nets after their release.

Papop Siamhan, a labor rights lawyer, said forcing prisoners to manufacture goods for private companies could violate Thailand’s trafficking laws, which prohibit forced labor. “The officers have direct power over the detainees, who are in a difficult position to resist,” he said.

Andrea Giorgetta, director for Asia at the International Federation for Human Rights, called on the Thai government to investigate the allegations. He said the Thomson Reuters Foundation findings on low wages and penalties for failing to meet targets were in line with research by the Federation, a network of 192 human rights organizations.

“All the indications point to practices which constitute violations of many international human rights standards and could well amount to forced labor,” said Mr. Giorgetta.

The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, said its compliance assessments have so far failed to find that Thailand’s prison practices violate the country’s obligations under the Convention on Prison. forced labor.

The convention specifies that compulsory prison labor does not constitute forced labor as long as it is carried out under the control of a public authority and the detainee is not placed at the disposal of a private enterprise.

All of the former prisoners said their work took place in prison, although three said they knew inmates at Khon Kaen Central Prison in northeast Thailand who worked in factories owned by KKF, the company which exports to the United States.

Two of them said they also made mosquito nets for KKF, recalling the name of the company on receipts sent to the prison. It was also marked on pieces of paper inside the packaging that came with the nets, they said.

“If we didn’t hit the target, they (the prison guards) would make us take off our shirts and turn around on the ground or we would be beaten with batons,” said a former prisoner who made fishing nets. for the KKF and others. companies in 2019. “I would also hear the threats – ‘if you don’t finish, you get it,'” he said, citing prison guards.

Some of the former prisoners said their guards benefited financially from the work they were forced to do. Most of the contracts obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation did not specify how the money would be distributed, specifying only the number of nets, the overall amount of payment and the due date. But three said the payments would be split between prisoners, the government and prison officers.

A contract signed in 2020 with Si Sa Ket prison stipulated that prison officers would receive 15% of net revenues.

Petch began a prison term in Songkhla in southern Thailand in 2013, serving a total of six years. During this time, he was forced to work making fishing nets under the threat of punishment. He was not told of the name of the company, but said he saw the KKF logo inside the bags containing the nets brought to the prisoners.

Petch said prison guards were supposed to hold a book under their arm if they beat prisoners to limit severity. But he said they did not comply and he saw fellow inmates kicked and kicked for not being able to meet the daily goal.

“It’s tiring as hell,” said the 27-year-old, who asked to be identified only by his nickname. “But everyone inside knows it’s a money generator (for officers). “Our fingers would all be sore from injuries. It’s real torture… it’s the worst kind of job. Thomson Reuters Foundation


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