Culture & Life

Life hard for those working in the Thai fishing industry

BY: Brent Lewin - POSTED ON: April 28, 2016

Thailand’s fishing industry has been exposed as one of the most exploitative in the world. Photographer Brent Lewin was invited to document an evening’s labour for the men who eke out a dangerous living onboard

It is almost midnight, and while most Thais are sleeping, the sea is teeming with marine life and fishermen seeking their catch. Numbering in the tens of thousands, their day begins as the sun falls, boats setting off from piers along the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. As the sight of land dissolves into the horizon, the men onboard fraternise, inspect their smartphones and repair nets.

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Darkest night: lights illuminate a fishing trawler near Si Racha, in the Gulf of Thailand. Photo: Brent Lewin

The captain sits perched atop the colourful trawler, guided by sonar tracking equipment, and when a densely populated area is found, he sounds an alarm to summon the crew to the deck. Ranging from teenagers to the elderly, the men cast huge nets on each side of the ship. After dragging them across the ocean floor for about 30 minutes in the pursuit of medium and large fish, such as barracuda, barramundi and red snapper, the crew slowly reel the nets in.

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The haul: fishermen work to pull in nets on a trawler off the coast of Thailand

It is very much a team effort and the atmosphere is jovial, with the crew singing songs while collecting their catch. Soon, workers are chasing flailing fish on the slippery deck before storing them in a hold packed with ice. The whole process is repeated several times throughout the night.

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Ethical concerns: some Western countries have threatened to pull Thai seafood off the shelves. Photo: Brent Lewin

Thailand is the third-largest seafood exporter in the world with annual exports estimated at $7 billion by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. However, thanks to the global appetite for cheap seafood, along with the industrialisation of a largely unregulated industry, the Gulf of Thailand is now one of the most exploited seas in the world, and fishermen are forced to travel further and for longer in order to turn a profit.

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A short break: the men onboard Thai fishing trawlers must labour throughout the night. Photo: Brent Lewin

As a result, many boat owners are cutting costs through migrant labour. According to the UN, more than 130,000 migrant workers are victims of forced labour in Thailand’s seafood processing region, and a 2009 survey of migrant fishermen by the Raks Thai Foundation found beatings, inhumane working hours and sleep deprivation to be the norm.

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Catch of the day: fish sit in a hold on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand. Photo: Brent Lewin

Recent investigative reports from international media have begun to shine a light on this dark side of the fishing industry, and the US and EU have threatened to pull Thai seafood off the shelves.

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Industry afloat: huge numbers of fishing boats bob around in the Gulf of Thailand each night. Photo: Brent Lewin

This has left Thailand scrambling to regulate its fisheries and repair the industry’s image. However, for the fishermen and their families, it has placed a large question mark over this economic and cultural mainstay.

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Long hours: forced labour is rife throughout the Thai fishing industry. Photo: Brent Lewin
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Wide selection: different species of fish are sorted into buckets just off the coast of Si Racha. Photo: Brent Lewin
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Making and mending: a worker repairs a fishing net while at sea. Photo: Brent Lewin

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Life hard for those working in the Thai fishing industry