Thailand Too Slow on Slavery Reforms

Published Dec 17, 2015 9:47 AM by Wendy Laursen

The 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report has been released, and Thailand has maintained its low Tier 3 status.

There are an estimated three to four million migrant workers in Thailand, most from Thailand’s neighboring countries: Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. In addition to Thai victims of trafficking, some of these migrant workers are also believed to be forced, coerced or defrauded into labor or sex trafficking, and some are exploited in commercial fishing and fishing-related industries.

According to CNN, Thai government figures state that there are 145,000 working in its fishing industry, with 80 percent of those migrant workers. However, activist group Raks Thai Foundation suggests there are in excess of 200,000 trafficked, unregistered workers.

Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, and Indonesian men are subjected to forced labor on Thai fishing boats. Some men remain at sea for several years, are paid very little or irregularly, work as much as 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week and are threatened and physically beaten. The Trafficking in Persons Report states that some victims of trafficking in the fishing sector are unable to return home due to isolated workplaces, unpaid wages and the lack of legitimate identity documents or safe means to travel back to their home country.

Many other countries are mentioned in the report in relation to human trafficking in the fishing industry including Angola, Beleze, Jamaica, Kenya and Micronesia.

Kerry: “We Hear You”

In announcing the report, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, stated:

"This year’s report places a special emphasis on human trafficking in the global marketplace. It highlights the hidden risks that workers may encounter when seeking employment and the steps that governments and businesses can take to prevent trafficking, including a demand for transparency in global supply chains.

"The bottom line is that this is no time for complacency. Right now, across the globe, victims of human trafficking are daring to imagine the possibility of escape, the chance for a life without fear, and the opportunity to earn a living wage. 

“I echo the words of President Obama and say to them: We hear you, and we will do all we can to make that dream come true. In recent decades, we have learned a great deal about how to break up human trafficking networks and help victims recover in safety and dignity. In years to come, we will apply those lessons relentlessly, and we will not rest until modern slavery is ended." 

NGO’s Support Tier 3 Designation

Human Rights at Sea, alongside 25 international NGOs, has jointly submitted a letter to Kerry concerning the ongoing issues of slavery and abuse at sea and abuse of human rights in Thailand that have resulted in Thailand retaining a Tier 3 rating. The text of the letter reads:

Dear Secretary Kerry,

We write today to support the State Department’s decision to maintain Thailand’s Tier 3 designation in the 2015 Global Trafficking in Persons Report. We believe the Tier 3 ranking, as well as the research and recommendations contained in the report, will be an important tool for governments, international institutions, companies and investors to continue to press the Thai authorities to enact more substantive reforms to end the labor trafficking that can be found in many sectors of Thailand’s economy, including seafood.

This decision comes at a vital time for leveraging change from the Thai government in its anti-trafficking efforts. Last year’s downgrade to Tier 3 in the 2014 TIP Report, the decision by the European Union to issue Thailand a “yellow card” for its failure to adequately monitor its fishing industry, and high-profile global media exposés of human trafficking in Thailand’s fishing industry have together produced an unprecedented level of international pressure on Thailand to address its significant human trafficking problem. 

The Thai government has demonstrated its willingness to respond to that pressure, and has taken a few encouraging actions. In particular, efforts to register migrant workers, passage of the Regulation to Protect Labour in the Sea Fishing Industry, and reforms to the Fisheries Act that increase regulation and oversight of fishing vessels are positive steps. 

However, the government only began making these regulatory changes toward the end of 2014, many of them weren’t operational until mid-2015, and we remain deeply concerned that failure to effectively enforce these laws and policies may render those changes ineffectual. The U.S. decision to leave Thailand on Tier 3 until it demonstrates greater political commitment to enforce these new laws and regulations reflects an accurate assessment of Thailand’s efforts to combat human trafficking and will serve as a powerful incentive for Thailand to take further steps.

The State Department’s decision will keep pressure for substantive changes by Bangkok. In particular, Thailand needs to demonstrate it is willing to enforce newly established mechanisms to increase transparency and regulatory accountability within its seafood industry, and apply those mechanisms to combating human trafficking by conducting more frequent inspections at sea, ensuring inspectors are trained to identify and respond to the needs of trafficking victims, and cracking down on the trade of fraudulent crew manifests and identification documents at ports.

Another issue that requires urgent U.S. attention is Thailand’s use of criminal defamation and the Computer Crimes Act to prosecute journalists and human rights defenders. This month, Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, and migrant rights defender Andy Hall faced court proceedings. If they are found guilty, it will have a chilling impact on the ability of trafficking victims to speak out and seek justice. Thailand should not be prosecuting journalists and activists for doing their jobs, and these court trials belie Thailand’s claims that it is working with civil society to address human trafficking issues.

Finally, Thailand should ensure that migrant workers have the right to associate and organize to protect their rights, including the right to form unions. The US should press Thailand to adopt key International Labor Organization conventions – including Conventions No. 87 on Freedom of Association and No. 98 on Collective Bargaining, as well as the new Protocol to Convention No. 29 Against Forced Labor (which Thailand has ratified) – and bring its laws into compliance.

We are committed to continue our efforts to press the government of Thailand toward making substantive changes to end human trafficking, and today’s decision will aid our efforts. We thank you for your work to combat human trafficking, and look forward to continuing our engagement with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to secure the outcome that we all want: the end of human trafficking in Thailand based on changed laws and policies, and effective enforcement on the ground. 

The letter is signed by the following organizations:

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations
Anti-Slavery International
The Child Labor Coalition
Environmental Justice Foundation
Green America
Fairfood International
Fair World Project
Food Chain Workers Alliance
Fortify Rights
Free the Slaves
The Freedom Fund
Human Rights and Development Foundation
Human Rights at Sea
Human Rights Watch
International Labor Rights Forum
International Transport Workers' Federation
International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF)
Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
National Consumers League
National Guestworker Alliance
Slave Free Seas
Synod of Victoria and Tasmania - Uniting Church in Australia

The 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report is available here.