BANGKOK (AP) — Human rights groups and labor organizations across Asia urged Thailand's military government on Thursday to scrap a proposal to send prisoners onto Thai fishing boats to fill labor shortages.
In a letter addressed directly to coup leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the 45 organizations including Human Rights Watch said the pilot project would pose "a serious threat to the human rights of prisoners" and sending them to sea is a violation of international rights standards.
Government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp said the project had not yet been implemented and authorities were still weighing such concerns before deciding whether to go ahead. The government has said that only "well-behaved" prisoners would qualify to participate, and they would work voluntarily and would be paid.
The Southeast Asian nation's fishing industry has been criticized for years, with the worst victims — mostly migrants from neighboring countries — forced into virtual slavery on vessels at sea or subject to abuse, confinement and 20-hour working days. Last year, the United States demoted Thailand to the lowest level in its annual rankings of governments' anti-human trafficking efforts, principally over its failures to do enough to stop abusive practices in the Thai seafood industry.
The letter said abusive working conditions within the industry are the reason why there are labor shortages.
"Simply replacing vulnerable migrant workers with released prisoners will not solve the abusive working conditions and many other problems present in the Thai fishing industry," the letter said.
Arrug Phrommanee, deputy permanent secretary at Thailand's Labor Ministry, said the proposal was only one idea to provide jobs and skill training to prisoners, like other Thais.
"If such project will violate the prisoners' rights, it will definitely not happen," Arung added.