A singular achievement for the Thai government and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha who in 2015 and 2016 battled against threats of a red card, media exposés and international ostracism over claims of slavery on Thai fishing vessels and within the processing industry. Today the industry is acknowledged as a model for other countries by the European Union.

Last week in Brussels, one of the most significant and impressive achievements of the current Thai government and indeed of the Prime Minister was recognised by the EU. Back in 2015, in the aftermath of a media firestorm and international criticism of Thailand’s fishing industry over a damning media exposé by the AFP News service highlighting slavery on Thai fishing vessels, it took a lot of resolve, pluck and determination by the Thai government to turn the situation around. Amid continuous negative world media coverage, an EU yellow card and ongoing threats to block Thai fisheries exports with a red card. But it succeeded. At a press conference last week, the EU decision to lift the EU yellow card on Thailand was confirmed by senior EU officials who not only removed the warning sanction but praised Thailand as a model for other countries. Thailand’s fishing industry and associated processing sector now looks set to flourish with a new, improved status and world class endorsement for the country’s fishery sector. Thailand’s government has succeeded in transforming the way the Thai fishing fleet and associated regulatory and oversight agencies go about their business.

Thailand’s PM designated the reform of the fisheries sector in 2015 as a national priority for the country and vowed ‘zero tolerance’ for practices that damaged Thailand’s reputation abroad. He set out a determination to achieve higher, internationally accepted standards in the country’s fisheries industry at all costs. Last week the European Union lifted its yellow card against Thailand and praised the country’s new fisheries regulations and oversight regime. Analysts and experts say it will boost confidence in the fishing industry and one government trade representative hopes it might be a step towards an eventual Thai EU trade deal.

In 2015 the European Union, following intense media coverage lead by a devastating AFP news agency report into slavery on Thai fishing vessels, was scathing in its criticism of Thailand. It imposed a yellow card and warned Thai authorities that a red card or block on substantial Thai fisheries imports into the  trading bloc was a distinct probability if matters were not resolved. Outrage and condemnation at the reports was universal and some US  firms cancelled orders. At the time, calls for a red card were made from a large array of activists and many European members of the European Parliament. The EU has now reversed its position and given Thailand the all clear. It has officially declared it has lifted the yellow card that was imposed on Thailand since 2015. The collection of European nations has formally recognised the effectiveness and good faith of the huge program launched by Thailand’s authorities in 2015 to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Thai waters, including the use of undocumented and exploited labour within Thailand’s fishing fleet.

Ministers hope lifting of yellow card translates into economic advantage for Thailand’s export sector

Thai ministers are already talking about harnessing the new improved status of the Thai fisheries sector to grow Thailand’s market share of world’s markets. One obvious example would be in the United States of America which saw some contracts and orders cancelled when the media firestorm erupted in 2015 over slavery in Thailand’s fishery vessels at the time and the use of trafficked labour in some Thai processing plants.

A minister at Thailand’s Office of the Prime Minister was buoyant after the announcement: ‘The government has worked hard to improve the state of fishery industry regulations and administration. The next step is to make the fishery industry a key factor in driving Thailand’s economic growth,’ he told The Nation newspaper.

A conference held to lift the Yellow card on Thailand

After a press conference held at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, the EU formally announced that it would lift the yellow card sanction that it had previously imposed on Thailand.

The conference was attended by the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister, Chatchai Sarikulaya and the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella. The move is seen as significant for Thailand not only in term of its direct economic impact but also, it shows a new confidence internationally in Thailand’s leadership. Thailand’s fisheries exports to the European Union are worth well over $1 billion and in 2015 the European Union was even threatening the Thai government with a red card which would have halted Thai exports to one of its most valuable market with devastating consequences for employment, confidence and future trade prospects. Today it is the opposite situation with the international collection of nations strongly endorsing Thailand’s fisheries sector, its oversight and governance. Quite a remarkable turnaround in less than four years.

Thailand praised by the European Union over new fisheries regime as an exemplary model

Not only is the yellow card notice lifted, but Thailand is being praised by European Union authorities as a model for how fisheries should be regulated by a supplier nation in the future. Mr Vella, the EU Commissioner, was wholesome in his praise for Thailand which, he said, had recognised and shouldered its international obligations in combating illegal fishing. He singled out praise for the measures taken to address the environment for labour being used in the Thai fisheries industry.

European officials underlined their opinion that Thailand now had one of the most effective fisheries regimes in the world for protection against the threat of illegal fishing. The country now serves as an example to other countries who may in the future experience similar challenges. Thailand’s Agricultural Minister, General Chatchai Sarikulaya emphasized that at the heart of Thailand’s new fisheries policies was not only a commitment to sustainable practices and conservation but also to ethical standards. He said he was looking forward to working with the European Union to enhance efforts towards the future conservation of Thailand’s marine resources.

Thailand’s determined campaign to bring its fishing industry into compliance with international standards

At the commencement of the conference, Mr Vella praised the efforts undertaken by the Thai government which participated wholeheartedly in keeping the country within its international obligations to tackle illegal and unregulated fishing. These efforts included fitting reporting and monitoring systems on Thailand’s entire fishing fleet. It was a campaign that Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, can take personal credit for. At the time he promised ‘zero tolerance’ for those who opposed the direction being pursued by Thai authorities and designated it as a matter of national importance to establish Thailand as a respected partner in the international community when it comes to fisheries. The concentrated government action program came with threats to prosecute fishing vessels which did not cooperate and seek to attain the new regulatory standards set by the government.

The campaign involved removing fishing vessels that failed to meet standards and a scheme to register all labour used on Thailand’s fishing fleet including an innovative scheme to give work permits and identification to foreign workers employed.

Thai trade official sees improved prospects for a Thai EU trade deal with the move

The Director General of the Department of Trade Negotiations, Auramon Supthaweethum, was bullish after the announcement. Not only would the move have a positive impact on Thailand’s exports to the European Union in the fisheries sector, but it will improve worldwide recognition of the industry and assist efforts to develop new commercial markets. From now on, Thai fisheries products have the seal of approval from one of the most significant, respected and demanding world trade partners. The Director General of the trade department which operates in Thailand under the Commerce Ministry, said he saw a future potential upside for exports to the European Union. He also saw the move as a possible stepping stone to a future Thai EU free trade deal. The European Union has recently signed such a deal with Vietnam. ‘It creates a good image for Thailand’s fishery industry and indirectly improves the prospects of developing a Thai-EU free trade agreement,’ he told The Nation newspaper.

Business analyst points to share boost for Thailand’s largest fish processing concern and predicts a boost in confidence for the industry

Reaction from the business sector was more down to earth but still positive. Amnart Ngosawang is a Vice President with KTB Securities. He has pointed out that the lifting of the yellow card was merely the lifting of a warning against in Thailand. In 2015 however, this was accompanied by threats of a red card so it shows how far the Thai government has progressed. He predicted that the confidence dividend from the move would be quite significant however. He pointed to a sharp rise in the stock value of Thailand’s largest fish processing company, Thai Union Group Plc. The huge Thai fisheries conglomerate generates up to 30% of its income from the EU market, the analyst pointed out. He predicted a new level of overall confidence in the Thai fisheries sector and its ability to generate new export markets.

Leading Thai fisheries company praises Thai government’s success at improving standards

The CEO of Thai Union Group Plc praised the Thai government for its handling of the situation. Thiraphong Chansiri predicted that the achievement allowed Thailand to become a leader in the fisheries sector within Asia. He particularly highlighted the Thai government’s success in solving the problem of immigrant labor on Thai fishing vessels and within the processing industry as a huge plus for the industry. He also acknowledged the benefit of efforts to make sure that fishing in Thai waters would become more sustainable in the future.

Thai government in extensive campaign to save Thailand’s fisheries and seafood exports