Report spotlights modern-day slavery in Thailand

Following revelations of modern-day slavery and maltreatment of migrant workers, Thailand has been downgraded to the lowest rank in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report (TIP), putting it on the same level as Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea.

Following revelations of modern-day slavery and maltreatment of migrant workers, Thailand has been downgraded to the lowest rank in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report (TIP), putting it on the same level as Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea. The report cites the recruitment of young women into the sex trade, slavery within the seafood industry, as well as the trafficking of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

The TIP report- considered the benchmark index for global anti-trafficking efforts – comes just over a week after Thailand became the only country to vote against a motion that would enforce the International Labor Organization’s convention against slave labor, citing that local conditions may not be ready to implement such a measure. The military junta which governs Thailand has announced it was working to “address the issue.”

In a DW interview, Annette Lyth, Regional Project Manager at the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons, cites corruption, slow prosecution rates, a weak application of the rule of law and a lack of coordination to meet the domestic demand for labor as major barriers to fighting such abuses.

DW: Can you give us an estimate of how many trafficked people are forced to work in Thailand in slave-like conditions?

Annette Lyth: It is very difficult to estimate the numbers of trafficked persons but one can draw some conclusion from the fact that there is a significant population of migrant workers in the country – 3 to 4 million by some estimates – and since many of these are undocumented, they are highly vulnerable to debt bondage and other controls. Recent research from the International Labor Organization on working conditions on fishing boats in Thailand found that 16.9 percent of workers who were interviewed were in situations of forced labor.

These estimates, however, differ strongly from the official statistics provided by the Thai government for 2013, which state that a total of 674 human trafficking cases were officially identified that year, with 520 cases involving sexual exploitation, 80 cases of labor exploitation, and 74 cases related to forced begging – an increase of almost 50 percent from official figures provided for 2012.

In which sectors of the Thai economy are trafficked people forced to work?

The main sectors in which human trafficking occurs include fisheries, seafood processing, low-skilled manufacturing, agriculture and construction, as well as sexual exploitation.

How do people end up being trafficked and forced to work in Thailand?

In some cases people are approached by a broker, who could be a friend, a family member or an unknown person, who promises to find them well paid jobs in another country. People may also be actively looking for opportunities to work abroad and contact a recruitment agency to help them in their search. There have also been many cases of people trafficked onto boats, who report that they were drugged during their journey en route to their workplace destination, and when they wake up found themselves on a boat far out on the sea.

Often the trafficked persons will enter into a situation of debt as they do not have enough money to pay for travel and other related cost. However, the debt will be considerably larger than the actual cost. The trafficked persons therefore have to enter into a situation which can be described as bonded labor while they supposedly work off their debt.

However, they often never manage to pay back their debt as the amount owed increases over time, as while they work, they are supposedly provided with food and accommodation that must also be paid for. They, thus, enter a situation of debt and forced labor which is perpetuated.

Are people from other countries being trafficked into Thailand?

Most trafficking victims in Thailand come from the neighboring countries, mainly Cambodia and Myanmar, but also Lao PDR and Vietnam. Trafficking victims also come from countries in Africa and the former Soviet Union.

An ILO research on Myanmar migrant workers in the shrimp processing industry in Samut Sakhon – a province outside of Bangkok- found that one third of the migrant workers had been trafficked at some point into the industry.

What kind of people are being targeted by human traffickers?

In general, human traffickers approach people who are looking for better lives somewhere else. Trafficking victims often come from poor, rural areas and have an unrealistic picture of what kind of life they can get in the destination country. However, it is important to note that anyone can fall prey to traffickers, not just the poor or less educated.

Due to its clandestine nature, it is difficult to provide accurate figures when discussing human trafficking and therefore also difficult to say whether trafficking is increasing – but it certainly shows no sign of it decreasing.

What are the major barriers in Thailand to fighting such abuses?

Anti-trafficking efforts too often remain on the policy and planning level and are not implemented in a vigorous manner. For example, victim identification procedures are weakly implemented and are primarily reactive when cases are brought to the attention of the authorities. Efforts to identify victims of trafficking in the past year as a result of different pressures – such as from the TIP report – have focused on trafficking for sexual exploitation of Thai nationals, while many observers identify trafficking of migrants for forced labor as being more prevalent.

Moreover, there is no clear plan for meeting industry demands for labor and the demand is significant. Therefore, migrant workers are brought by brokers to meet the demand, often in vulnerable situations – debt bondage, uncertain of the procedures for registration, often unable to register, etc..

There is also no doubt that corruption on different levels undermines any effective anti-trafficking response, but the government is sensitive – some might even say resistant – to addressing such issues. This results in a weak application of the rule of law, particularly with regards to the rights of migrants.

Prosecution rates are still very low, with trials lasting for very long periods of time and resulting in few convictions. Prosecutions are still often solely reliant on the testimony of victims and with long trials this may result in victims being forced to stay in shelters in Thailand for lengthy periods, and in some cases for years. This clearly has an impact on the victims’ willingness to press charges and participate in judicial processes against their traffickers.

Finally, it must also be recognized that fighting trafficking onto ships is extremely difficult as these ships can be several days’ rides from the shore or in waters that belong to – and, therefore, governed by the jurisdictions of – other countries.

What does Thailand’s downgrade to the lowest tier of the TIP report mean for the country? Will it face economic sanctions and the withdrawal of aid?

When a country falls to Tier 3 in the TIP report, there is the possibility of sanctions by the US government. However, at this point it is unclear whether the US government has the intention of imposing sanctions and what these would be if this is the case.

There could be an economic impact as some industries look to source products from other countries – e.g. shrimp from Vietnam – and this has already started as a result of media attention on these industries. Increasing focus, legislation and standards around this issue in the US and other countries means that Western companies, and those doing business in the US – and possibly in the future in the EU, will have to demonstrate responsibility for forced labor in their supply chains.

There may also be a political knock-on effect in terms of fall-out reputation-wise, which may affect relations with those countries and institutions that have a regard for human rights.

What must be done to tackle the issue?

Thailand needs to review its migration policy and make it easier for migrants to stay and work legally in the country. This should provide them with some protection against exploitation.

Moreover, Thailand needs be more strategic and coordinated in its fight against human trafficking. Victim identification procedures must be more pro-active, including practical measures such as the use of interpreters to be able to adequately interact with potential victims.

Alternatives to long shelter stays must be found for victims who participate in judicial proceedings, including granting them the right to work and earn money during this period. At the same time, trial periods must be significantly shortened, possibly through a fast-track procedure or similar, and a system whereby possessions of alleged traffickers are seized must be enforced.

For any effective anti-trafficking work it is imperative that the traffickers and exploiters face a significant risk that outweighs their possible economic gains in human trafficking.

Annette Lyth is Regional Project Manager at the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT).