Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has vowed action against slavery in the country's seafood processing facilities, following a media investigation that found modern-day slaves working in shrimp-peeling sheds.
According to Thai media, General Prayut said arrests are underway, and officers who failed to tackle the problem will be punished.
“We are dealing with the issue, aren't we? All military and police officers have their duties. If they do not fulfil their duties, they will be guilty,” he was quoted as saying.
Thailand's shrimp processing industry generates exports worth more than a billion US dollars, with most of the work done at Samut Sakhon, a central province that neighbours Bangkok to the south west.
Although some 50 shrimp peeling sheds are registered nationwide, hundreds more operate under the radar, many using illegal labour.
Associated Press (AP) followed police on a raid, which revealed up to 100 people working in squalid conditions in one shed alone. There, workers were known by numbers, not their names.
The AP report said the workers, many from Myanmar, were lured by promises of good pay but in reality received just a pittance, which they used to pay off debts to brokers and recruiters.
One worker said he and his wife peeled nearly 80 kilogrammes of shrimp for just US$4 day.
"We were not allowed to rest. We had to start working from early morning until evening standing up constantly and peeling the shrimp. It didn't matter whether someone got sick or didn't have enough sleep, they cannot rest. Unless someone is badly unhealthy, no one can rest,” said 22-year-old Tin Nyo Win.
AP said the raid seemed like a victory for Thai police but no one was arrested for human trafficking. Instead, migrants with documents, including seven children, were sent back to the shed to work.
However after Bangkok police were alerted, a re-investigation was ordered and the shed was shut down.
The report claimed the slavery problem is fuelled by corruption and complicity. However, the global body setting standards for seafood industries said it was optimistic about the government’s response to the issue.
"It is taken very seriously by the highest levels of buying and government and production, and we're making fast progress, I think, pretty fast progress on addressing it,” said George Chamberlain, the president of the Global Aquaculture Alliance.
“We're going to correct this and we'll be better for it."
Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world, but it is an industry that relies heavily on forced labour and trafficking.
Victims come from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, and are often marooned on foreign shores to save labour costs or to avoid legal complications in the case of illegal fishing.
Last June, the US downgraded Thailand in its annual report on human trafficking. In April, the EU gave the Southeast Asian kingdom a yellow card for its failure to solve the problem and warned that sanctions on Thai seafood imports could ensue if the country did not clean up illegal fishing practices within six months.
Currently, the seafood trade between Thailand and the EU is worth US$500 million to US$700 million each year.
In response, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha tasked the Royal Thai Navy with a new responsibility of tackling illegal fishing, which resulted in a new control centre being set up at the Navy's headquarters.
"We want to regulate the fishing industry operating on land to make it comply with the law, as well as those operating in the sea. We are working with cooperation from all government agencies. I believe that the situation will get better,” said Police Colonel Akarapol Punyopashtambha from the force’s Anti-Human Trafficking Centre.
“But we have to understand that things have been done certain ways for so long that it may take time for the situation to change."
Thailand’s fishing industry is already reeling from the effects of the crackdown on illegal fishing by Indonesia, which has disrupted its seafood supply chain since November last year.