BANGKOK: The International Labour Organisation on Monday warned of "serious abuses" in the Thai fishing industry -- a major global source of fish -- such as forced labour and violence.
About 17 percent of the mainly undocumented Myanmar and Cambodian fishermen surveyed by the ILO were forced to work under threat of financial penalty, violence or denunciation to the authorities, the UN agency said.
Thailand -- the world's third largest fish exporter by value, with sales worth around $7 billion a year -- is under international pressure to respond to reports of fishermen forced to work as virtual slaves under brutal conditions.
"This study does find serious abuses within the sector. The vast majority of workers were in irregular status and thus more vulnerable to exploitation," said ILO senior programme officer Max Tunon.
While 10 percent of respondents reported being severely beaten on board, more than a quarter said they worked or were on call between 17 and 24 hours a day.
The average wage was 6,483 baht ($200) a month among the sample of 596 people, while only one of the migrant fishermen had a work permit. The survey found seven children under 15 years old, and 26 teenagers aged 15-17.
Conditions for fishermen on long-haul vessels were worse than for those who regularly returned to shore, the survey found, with a quarter reporting having been deceived or coerced into working at sea.
Tunon said the study focused on those in short-haul boats, with those trapped at sea "in the worst conditions" not necessarily included.
"It would be expected that if we interviewed just people at sea for a long period of time the picture would look worse," he said.
The report said the fishing industry as a whole -- which includes lucrative fish and shrimp farming and packaging sectors -- accounts for around 1.2 percent of Thailand's economy.
But declining fish stocks have pushed boats farther out to sea in search of catch, increasing their fuel costs.
"With pressures on seafood suppliers to reduce costs by every means available, a race to the bottom on labour costs has been created for the Thai seafood industry," the report said.
"When coupled with the increased vulnerability of undocumented migrant workers to forced labour, an enabling environment for such abuses to become systematic now exists."