Crisis at Sea: The Life-threatening Work of Myanmar Fishers in Thailand

Picture of Myo Thiha

Myo Thiha

Myo Thiha is a former teacher in Myanmar currently seeking refuge in Thailand due to the military coup, now working as a journalist covering migrant workers in the Tanintharyi region.

Picture of Natalie Amadea

Natalie Amadea

Natalie is an illustrator who studies graphic narrative through the lens of semiotics. Through image-making, she explores themes of gender identity, sexuality, and female transgression.

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Most of the fishers in Thailand—one of the countries that have received the biggest value from seafood export—are Myanmar migrant workers who have been fleeing from their country since the coup in 2021. In Thailand, they are facing another threat: working with many risks, ranging from losing body parts to death, without proper protection.

A Myanmar migrant fisher, Maung Maung*, still remembers vividly the night he lost his younger brother, Chit Min Thu, to the sea. Maung Maung knows that working as a fisher has many risks, including death. He had always been worried when his younger brother joined him as a fisher in Thailand, especially because his brother did not know how to swim.

One night, on July 19, 2023, Maung Maung, Chit Min Thu, and their boss went to the sea in Thailand. Both of the brothers were fishing, while their boss became the boat leader.

In the middle of the dark, several waves came and hit their small boat. Then came one big tide that shook their boat. Maung Maung was still able to hold onto the rope in their boat, while Chit Min Thu failed and fell into the water.

“After he fell off the boat while working, I attempted to save him, but it was already too late,” Maung Maung recounts the younger brother, tears streaming down his face looking at his picture. In a flash, his brother disappeared from his sight. Maung Maung immediately told his boss. His boss helped search for him for 30 minutes as per his duty but was unable to find him. He stopped the search.

“The boss showed no concern for my little brother, who had fallen into the water. If we had continued the search, we might have been able to find him,” he recalls.

His boss continued to work as if nothing had happened. They didn’t continue the search and irresponsibly disembarked on the shore. “That was why I had to let go of my younger brother,” Maung Maung says.

After 12 hours of disappearance, around 1 pm the following day, Chit Min Thu’s dead body was found at another port. However, the boat owner, who had been working for more than 10 years, did not allow him to load his body onto his boat. 

Maung Maung understands that working as migrant fishers means they always need to work as quickly as possible without any protection, including from rescue, police forces, and bay watch forces.

“This is totally inhumane. The owner didn’t take the corpse immediately and didn’t call the police. He even threatened the person who informed the police, fearing that the case would be filed. He did not allow us to load the corpse to transfer it onto another shore. Thus, I had to tie my late younger brother to my chest, hug the boat body, and make the journey,” Maung Maung recounts.

“I cradled my late younger brother’s body, crossing the sea for 30 minutes, and brought it back.”

Myanmar Fishers in Thailand

Maung Maung and Chit Min Thu were originally from the Phyuu township in the Bago region of Myanmar. Their family consists of nine members, including their parents and seven siblings, three men and four women.

While the women of the family work at garment factories in Yangon, their incomes are not as good as those working in Thailand. 

Maung Maung has been working as a fisherman on a snail hunting boat at the Mekong port in the Samut Prakan district of Thailand for more than 10 years now.

The coup in Myanmar made his family more unstable than ever. The military coup started on February 1, 2021, and resulted in political instability and economic stagnation, further exacerbating the loss of job opportunities.

According to a statement from the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, the number of documented Myanmar workers in Thailand increased to 3 million following the coup as of December 2023. An estimated 5 million Myanmar citizens, both documented and undocumented, have sought employment in Thailand since.

Most of the migrant workers have to take blue-collar jobs that Thai citizens often avoid. Chit Min Thu was one of those people.

Chit Min Thu joined his brother to support their family in 2023. Together, the two brothers earned over 30 lakhs MMK or about 1000 USD per month, which provided full financial support for the family.

Disregarding the risks to life and safety, many Myanmar nationals are forced to work in the fishery sector, which is widely recognised as one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

“As I wanted to continue the traditional work that I did in my village, I chose to work on a boat in Thailand. I am familiar with the work and don’t really find it tiring. It is not difficult for me; I enjoy doing it. When I was in my village, I used to go fishing and set nets to catch fish,” says Maung Maung.

Over 70,000 individuals are fishers in Thailand, most of them from Myanmar and Cambodia. Approximately 70% of fishers in Thailand come from Myanmar.

An illustration of a balance scale where money weighs more than a boat from which a person fell.

According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation—Fishers Rights Network ( ITF-FRN) report (2024), “Over 98% of fishers in Thailand are poorly educated male migrant workers from rural Myanmar or Cambodia.”

In Thailand, if a person wants to become a fisher, they need to apply for documents such as a work permit, passport or certificate of identity (CI), pink card (Non-Thai ID card), and social security (Prakan Sangkhom) card.

However, according to Miss Phi Saw*, the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) representative, an organisation that advocates for migrant workers’ rights in Thailand, employers typically keep such documents, and the workers don’t even have a copy. Therefore, most workers are not fully aware of the details of the legal documents that they possess.

Only when Port-In-Port-Out (PIPO) officials come to check the documents, before the departure of the boat, do the employers give them to the workers temporarily and take them back upon disembarkation.

Obtaining a work permit, books, and permission to work legally on a one-year visa costs over 30,000 Baht or above 800 USD. 

Despite spending one-third of their pay to work with legal documentation, most fishers do not fully have access to their rights in accordance with the law. 

Many fishers like Chit Min Thu have lost their lives or disappeared at sea. According to the Royal Thai Police, there are at least 306 deaths and disappearances at sea between 2020 and 2022.

Lack of Protection

As mentioned earlier, most Myanmar migrant workers work blue-collar jobs since it is harder for them to find alternatives, and even harder for those who are undocumented. They need to earn some money to live with limited work options, including fishing.

At a glance, the fishing industry seems promising to the migrant workers. The fishers do not need to spend extra money on accommodation because the employer will provide meals and boats for free. Working together on the boat also removes the necessity for individual expenditures, unlike working on land. 

These incentives attract many Myanmar workers, including undocumented migrant workers, to choose fishing jobs in Thailand.

Because they lack a detailed understanding of workplace hazards and difficulties, most Myanmar people come and work in fishing boats with the hope of getting a lump sum like the factory and construction industries. One of them is U Sein Shin.

U Sein Shin, 37 years old, is a native of Mrauk-U, Rakhine State in Burma. He has left behind his two parents and one sister there. 

He was a farm worker in his homeland, but he made a firm decision to work as a fishing boat worker, which he had never done before, to support his family. 

He worked as a construction worker right after he arrived in Thailand, but earned his income irregularly.

Thus, despite having sea motion sickness, he decided to work as a fisherman, as the 10,000 Baht (around 274 USD) per month salary attracted him. He worked in a fishing boat in the Phanat area of ​​Chumphon District, southern Thailand.

Only five days after starting, he experienced a joint dislocation.

“I went to the boat early in the morning to set the nets. Then, I hit a block and tripped over, resulting in my arm joint becoming disconnected. Perhaps my hand was also sprained and fractured. I lost consciousness and only became aware of what had happened to me when I woke up in the hospital,” he recounts.

The mishap happened in early January 2024, as the boat in-charge informed the bay watch force and received first aid assistance. 

He was sent to the hospital in a timely manner. The employer only allowed him to have one day of medical leave at the hospital. Apart from that, the employer didn’t take any responsibility for it. 

Besides not asking about his medical costs, living expenses, and compensation until one month after the incident, the employer even kept important legal documents such as his passport. 

Due to the worsening of his arm injury, he couldn’t perform well at work anymore. The employer dismissed him.

“The boss didn’t give me a penny or visit me. I’m still alive because my friends are feeding me,” U Sein Shin says.

Power Abuse

In U Sein Shin’s case, we can see how the boss is able to abuse his power as an employer. Furthermore, until this article was published, his boss still held his social security card. Without the card, U Sein Shin is unable to withdraw medical costs and his medical leave allowance from the compensation fund.

In the case of a boat worker falling into the water or any mishap on a fishing boat, they need to activate the signal and inform the bay watch force to seek help. 

According to the Aid Alliance Commitee for Myanmar Workers (ACC), when a fisher activates it, they will be rescued in a timely manner and transported to the hospital with emergency services through the Thai military. AAC is an organisation that advocates for Myanmar migrant workers’ rights in Thailand.

ACC representative, Ko Nay Lin Thu, says if they fail to inform the Bay Watch Force to seek help in a timely manner, they may risk their lives, as Chit Min Thu.

“[Often times], fishing boats do not only operate within their designated location. They go out of the designated boundary. When operating within their designated territory, there’s a rescue force available for their security. However, if they face trouble outside their designated area, they don’t dare to activate the signal for help, fearing being sued,” says Ko Nay Lin Thu.

However, both U Sein Shin, who was injured while working on the boat, and Chit Min Thu, who lost his life, have not yet received any compensation from the social security fund. 

Workers with social security cards are eligible for free medical treatment at the hospital and to withdraw medical leave allowance. Through this fund, compensation for fisher’s injuries, disabilities, and death will be available. However, it is noted that undocumented fishers are not eligible for this. 

HRDF explains that if the injured person loses a body part, they can withdraw the compensation themselves. In the case of loss of life, the compensation can only be claimed by family members, preferably parents. If workers and family members are unable to collect compensation themselves, they must seek help from Myanmar organisations and cooperate until compensation is received.

However, it is impossible for the workers to withdraw it because, in many cases, the employer keeps the documents, like U Sein Shin’s case. According to the HRDF group, there are even some cases where employers withdrew compensations issued by the Social Security Office by using the documents they kept if the workers injured lost an arm or a leg.

Systemic Violence

Thailand is well-known for its seafood industry. In 2022, the value of seafood exports from Thailand reached 22 billion Thai Baht (641 million USD) and ranked 6th in the world for seafood. These overseas revenues are largely contributed by over 70,000 migrant fishers working at sea, whose labour has been exploited and unprotected. 

On the other hand, Thailand is one of the countries that ratified ILO Convention 188 of Work in Fishing in 2019 and issued policies that should protect fisher rights, but exploitation is rife throughout the industry.

Despite more than 300 fishers missing and losing lives at sea from 2020 to 2022, only about ten asked for help from Myanmar labour organisations, according to the AAC group. AAC’s representative, Ko Nay Lin Thu, emphasised how migrant fishers have faced life-threatening situations on the boat.

“In 2023 alone, there were incidents of death, accidents, fights, being kicked off the boat, individuals being hit with ropes in the boat and having limbs cut off. There were about 20 such cases as far as the team is aware of,” says Ko Nay Lin Thu. 

“Many cases went unnoticed. Most of them don’t dare to report the case. They didn’t dare to complain because they were afraid, whether it was fear of the employer or fear of losing the job.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Thai government to solve the problems of working conditions.

Labour violations are worsened by employers’ non-compliance with existing laws and the use of intimidation against migrant fishers. Fishers often do not have employment contracts in their hands, passports, bank books, or documents such as social security cards, and the salary was not transferred through an official bank account. 

According to Thai Law, employers must pay the fishers’ monthly salary via bank transfer. However, the ITF-FRN report shows that 99.4 per cent of fishers are not paid monthly by bank transfer. 

Most of the fishers are also not entitled to 30 days off per year under the Seafarers Protection Act 2557. According to HRDF, although the law requires employees to be paid double the regular rate for working on off days, most employers do not comply with this.

Additionally, the ITF-FRN report states, “Fishers working on these vessels report that most do not have adequate clean water onboard, lack fully stocked and accessible first aid kits, and are forced to work excessively long hours without adequate rest. These dangerous and unhealthy working conditions not only violate human rights—they violate existing labour law and are clear indicators of forced labour conditions.”

U Sein Shin recounts how his work was “physically demanding.” Every day, he worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Each trip lasted for 20 days without any day off on the boat. 

AAC reported that a big compound where fishers reside in Mahachai is always locked so that fishers cannot go out, and the employer has seized their legal documents. 

“Sometimes, organisations together with local authorities conduct a site visit. Though boat workers don’t dare say anything to us, we see fear on their faces. We have that sense once we see it. Considering the troubles that they have to bear, we did not say things we know to the authorities,” Ko Nay Lin Thu says.

Workers are faced with being beaten in the boat, arrested, or dismissed from work and risking deportation.

Fighting Against the System

After facing all of the injustices, both Maung Maung and U Sein Shin decided to fight for their rights. Maung Maung sought help through the AAC organisation and has already filed a complaint at the Social Security Office to receive compensation.

At the time of writing, the boss still threatens him to close the case with a small compensation of about 50,000 baht (around 1370 USD) for his brother’s death. Maung Maung ignores the threat and chooses to fight for his brother’s rights instead.

“We are working to take action against our boss,” says Maung Maung.

Ko Nay Lin Thu said ACC is open to advocating for and helping Myanmar migrant workers who faced incidents or death while working as fishers, such as Maung Maung’s case.

“Boat cases are said to be rare. Many incidents go unnoticed, especially those that happen on boats,” he says. 

Ko Nay Lin Thu, an AAC Alliance representative, suggested that Thailand’s government offices conduct thorough investigations into cases involving migrant fishers. Based on his experience, the success rate is high when the workers want to take it to the legal step.

Therefore, Ko Nay Lin Thu suggests that when workers face rights violations by employers, they should report those abuses to police forces or workers’ rights protection offices collectively. Workers should especially seek help from Myanmar worker organisations near their places.

Based on the type of rights abuse, documentation and unpaid labour charges will be further reported to workers’ rights protection offices, and compensation-related matters will be reported to social welfare offices.

Due to limited knowledge, campaigns and education to increase awareness of migrant fishers’ rights still need to be pushed. HRDF conducts awareness campaigns for 1,000 workers annually in the field, while the Foundation for Education and Development (FED), a foundation that has advocated for migrants’ education and health for years, has been working on education and advocacy for decades.

Not only from organisations but also from the Thailand government. HRDF and ACC also emphasise the need for the government to promote labour rights awareness in workers’ native languages to ensure effectiveness. Language barriers pose a significant challenge in educating workers, particularly in peripheral areas with limited government outreach.

HRDF says that it will be handled only if the case is bravely reported to Thai authorities or workers’ organisations. 

“If something happens and a worker does not report it, nothing can be done. Therefore, workers need to report the case. Once family members are informed, they need to file for compensation, as they are all responsible for it. Thai employers rarely feel responsible and pay compensation,” says Miss Phi Saw, an HRDF female officer. 

As a result, many workers, such as Ko Chit Min Thu and U Sein Shin, have experienced violations of their rights, including failure to receive medical costs and compensation.

The mother of Chit Min Thu hopes to receive compensation of over 800,000 Thai Baht for the loss of her son in accordance with the law, and she plans to cooperate with AAC. “I seek a reasonable amount of compensation for this tragedy,” she says.

She cried holding Chit Min Thu’s national scrutiny card. “I feel utterly inconsolable. He was my child, a good son who worked to support his parents and siblings. I am overcome with grief. My heart is shattered by this loss.”

*Pseudonyms were used to protect identities.

What’s Next?

  • You can support the Aid Alliance Committee (AAC) and Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) as organisations that advocate for Myanmar migrant workers’ rights in Thailand by following AAC’s and HRDF’s social media.
  • You can read more about the fishers’ situation in Thailand on the International Transport Workers’ Federation website.
  • You can read New Naratif’s other publications about migrant workers in Southeast Asia on our website.
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Home Forums Crisis at Sea: The Life-threatening Work of Myanmar Fishers in Thailand

  • Crisis at Sea: The Life-threatening Work of Myanmar Fishers in Thailand

    Posted by Rohin on 24 June 2024 at 4:30 pm

    Most of the fishers in Thailand—one of the countries that have received the biggest value from seafood export—are Myanmar migrant workers who have been fleeing from their country since the coup in 2021. In Thailand, they are facing another threat: working with many risks, ranging from losing body parts to death, without proper protection. Read more.

    • This discussion was modified 3 weeks, 4 days ago by  Bonnibel.
    Bonnibel replied 3 weeks, 4 days ago 2 Members · 1 Reply
  • 1 Reply
  • Bonnibel

    26 June 2024 at 11:56 am

    It’s really horrendous what migrant workers and fishers go through on a daily basis. Slavery may have been abolished on paper but its practices live on through these kinds of exploitations. Thank you Myo Thiha for bringing this to light.

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