By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - More than a dozen rights groups urged Thailand on Thursday to end a project to recruit prisoners to work on fishing boats, saying it would not address problems in the fishing industry and posed a serious threat to prisoners' rights.
Thailand is the world's third-largest seafood exporter. Its fishing industry employs more than 300,000 people, many of them illegal migrant workers from neighboring countries who are often subject to ill-treatment.
A labor shortage in the industry has also partly fueled human trafficking to meet demand for man power in the fishing sector. Rights groups say the pilot project would fail to stop the illicit trade.
"This project poses a serious threat to the human rights of prisoners," said a letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha signed by 45 non-governmental organizations.
"The project will also likely fail to address the fundamental causes of the labor shortage that fuels trafficking in Thailand's fishing industry."
Abuses recorded in the fishing industry include human trafficking, forced labor and violence. That has threatened business and put Thailand under international pressure to respond.
The warning comes as Thailand scrambles to boost its record in fighting human trafficking ahead of a U.S. deadline to show improvement.
In December the Labour Ministry said that it would send consenting prisoners who had less than a year left of their sentence to go and work on fishing boats to ease a labor shortage and to combat human trafficking.
On Wednesday the ministry said that the scheme was intended to help ex-prisoners find work and would not send current inmates to sea.
"We've found that ex-prisoners are not welcome in the Thai workforce so we've found a way to help them," Labour Minister Surasak Karnjanarat told Reuters.
A pilot program in Samut Sakhon province, west of the capital Bangkok, was currently employing 173 ex-prisoners to work on fishing boats, he added.
Thailand is ranked one of the world's worst centers of human trafficking. It was downgraded to the lowest "Tier 3" status last June on the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying with minimum standards for its elimination.
Prime Minister Prayuth has acknowledged the complicity of some Thai authorities in smuggling people and forcing them to work in the fishing industry.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Alisa Tang, Thomson Reuters Foundation; Editing by Joseph Radford)