The global trade in seafood relies heavily on migrant labor and unsustainable fishing practices to meet increasing demand for low-cost seafood.

Migrant labor makes up much of the workforce on many nations’ fishing fleets. Isolation, legal ambiguities on the high seas and exploitative labor recruitment make these workers highly vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labor, wage theft and myriad other egregious labor abuses.

Although labor exploitation has been documented in the fleets and factories of nearly all countries with significant trade in seafood products, Thailand has received the bulk of international focus on this issue. Thailand is one of the largest seafood exporters in the world, and the United States is its largest market, particularly for tuna and shrimp products. Migrant workers-- mostly from neighboring Burma, Cambodia and Laos -- staff this economically important export industry.

Discriminatory immigration and labor policies leave these workers dependent on employers and recruiters, deny them the right to form labor unions, and leave little access to remedy when employers violate labor laws. Research over nearly a decade has uncovered human trafficking, child labor, debt bondage, and other egregious forms of labor rights abuses throughout the Thai seafood industry. We try to influence the Thai government to change the laws that leave migrant workers vulnerable, while working with networks of partners inside Thailand and around the world to support workers in speaking out against abusive conditions, and hold the companies that profit from exploitation accountable.

Products on U.S. grocery shelves, such as frozen shrimp and canned tuna, have been linked to labor trafficking and child labor.

Thousands of migrant workers cross the border into Thailand each year from neighboring countries, with the greatest numbers coming from Burma. An estimated 1.8 million to three million migrant workers live in Thailand, many of them unregistered. These workers are employed in labor-intensive export industries such as fishing, manufacturing, food processing and agriculture.

Labor registration is complex and leaves migrant workers dependent on recruiters and employers and vulnerable to extortion. Indicators of forced labor are common, including document retention, restriction of movement, debt bondage, withholding of wages and excessive overtime. Local police sometimes overlook abuse, and have even been implicated in trafficking schemes. Discriminatory labor law prevents migrant workers from forming labor unions.

The seafood industry, in particular, has had serious concerns with labor trafficking, child labor, and debt bondage, among other abuses. The Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that up to two million people are employed in the seafood industry in Thailand, on fishing vessels and in processing facilities, and 90% are migrant workers. Fishing vessels pose the biggest risk to migrant workers. A prevalence study released in 2017 by the International Justice Mission and Issara Institute found that 40 percent of crew interviewed were victims of trafficking, and another 49% were potential victims given abusive recruitment and employment practices. Nearly all were victims of wage theft and/or illegally low compensation.

In response to the international pressure, Thailand has undertaken a series of significant reforms to improve oversight of its fisheries sector. For instance, it drafted and passed The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, which brings the definition of human trafficking more in line with international standards. Particularly in the seafood sector, it has made attempts to crackdown on illegally operating vessels and increase inspections to ensure all vessels are legally registered and abiding by the law. However, these changes have failed to change the fundamental power imbalance between migrant workers and their employers or to substantively change the reality on the ground for migrant workers, who are still vulnerable to trafficking.

Vulnerable communities are best protected when they are able to protect themselves.

As stories continue to surface about workers being trafficked onto fishing vessels, industry actors are looking for answers. Governments are also under pressure to increase oversight mechanisms. Despite increasing funding, good intentions and exciting momentum, many of the solutions being developed do not address the underlying vulnerability of seafood workers, and thus cannot provide long-term relief. Better solutions must be grounded in actions that shift the power dynamic to foster genuine worker voice:

  • In Thailand, that means significant reform to protect migrant workers.
  • In the seafood sector more broadly, that means ensuring programs that claim to certify or promote “social sustainability” of seafood supply chains establish binding mechanisms for industry improvement with a space for workers themselves to lead standard-setting, monitoring and enforcement.

ILRF is committed to promoting the fundamental changes required to address inadequate worker protections and ending common industry practices that fuel labor exploitation in fishing. We have two projects to accomplish those goals:

Thai Seafood Working Group

The International Labor Rights Forum, in partnership with Humanity United, facilitates the Thai Seafood Working Group, an internationally recognized network of nearly 60 human rights, labor, and environmental organizations from more than a dozen countries that work together to develop and advocate for effective government policies and industry actions to end endemic worker exploitation in the seafood sector.

Essential Elements for Effective Social Responsibility in the Seafood Sector

ILRF is promoting widespread adoption of the four Essential Elements introduced in ILRF’s May 2018 report, Taking Stock: Labor Exploitation, Illegal Fishing and Brand Responsibility in the Seafood Industry. The Elements, requisite building blocks for social responsibility initiatives aimed at fulfilling the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, are informed by ILRF’s Independent Monitoring at Sea project and decades of experience examining social certification schemes in sectors including apparel, cocoa, and palm oil. They are consistent with ILRF’s four criteria for worker-centered approaches to advancing labor rights in the global apparel industry, as well as the six principles of Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) promoted by the WSR Network.

The Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) is a membership-based organization of over 4,000 migrant workers from Myanmar residing and working mainly in Thailand. In March 2009, a group of nine migrant leaders from Myanmar founded the organization to improve the quality of life for migrant workers through community empowerment and increased access to justice. MWRN was founded to promote and strengthen Myanmar migrant workers’ rights by raising awareness for their concerns, promoting access to justice by negotiating with employers and government officials, and advocating for policy change. Though it is not permitted to be a union under Thai law, MWRN is a representative organization in which members democratically elect leaders to represent their interests. MWRN was the winner of the 2013 International Labor Rights Award, which is given annually to recognize the significant contributions of labor rights advocates toward achieving just and humane treatment for workers worldwide.

As Featured In:

Myanmar Times

The Guardian

Equal Times


Mr. Sein Htay is the President of MWRN and has grown the organization into the largest grassroots member-based migrant worker association in Thailand.


  • $281,000 secured as compensation for unpaid wages to migrant workers, mostly in the seafood sector.
  • More than 130 migrant workers educated via our computer training course, Thai/English language training courses and a vocational training course.
  • 350 students served at our school for migrant children, which opened in 2013 to address issues of child labor and trafficking among the migrant community.

Reports with ILRF: 

Building A Rights Culture: How Workers Can Lead Sustainable Change In Thailand’s Seafood Processing Center

Taking Stock: Labor Exploitation, Illegal Fishing and Brand Responsibility in the Seafood Industry


Documentary about MWRN


Address: 93/259 Moo-7 T,Thasai, A,Moung ,Samutsakhon Mahachai, Samut Sakhon, Thailand
Twitter: @mwrnorg