Thailand’s Disgraceful Human Trafficking Record

In its annual 2014 report, the US State Department has declared the Thai government’s efforts to curb human trafficking highly ineffective, with trafficked undocumented migrants totaling as many as half a million people and held in virtual slavery.

Of 188 countries, according to the report, Thailand tied for last place among 20 that are directly or indirectly involved in violating human rights by not effectively fighting human trafficking. Others among the 20 are North Korea, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Notwithstanding the UNO’s resolutions condemning human trafficking and consequent violations of human rights, human trafficking continues to be on the rise in Thailand, as in many other states. It is an irony as well as a sad example of the way modern capitalist development is rooted in Thailand that the level of human trafficking is rising proportionately to rising economic development.

That is because economic growth is accompanied by increasing demand for unskilled and cheap labor. This demand is largely satisfied by illegal migrants from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. Most of these laborers are employed in labor-intensive, dirty and low-prestige sectors of the economy. International experience suggests that in a situation when opportunities for employment are accompanied by complicated visa procedures, the criminalization of migration is quick to follow. This has become especially evident in Thailand’s case.

The Guardian, in its own probe, found that workers from different countries are paying brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites, but instead they are sold as virtual slaves to boat captains, sometimes for as little as US$420.

Working conditions, specifically in the Thai shrimp business, have been investigated by Reuters, The Guardian and the Environmental Justice Foundation. The results of these investigations have served as evidence for the US State Department to claim that Thai officials are neglecting the problem.

According to the conclusions made by the UK and US experts and journalists, slavery is the key success factor of Thailand’s shrimp industry. The report claims that “the government is making feeble efforts in the fight against the criminal business of human trafficking while corruption at all levels downplays attempts to prosecute the criminals.”

Among Southeast Asian countries, Thailand is the dubious leader, with annual revenue from this illegal business amounting to US$22-27 billion. This sum constitutes 50 to 60 percent of Thailand’s budget --figures show that this business is even more profitable than drug trafficking, enabling the perpetrators to enslave an astonishing half- million people.

Although human trafficking in Thailand has its own historical background and is often associated with the boom in sex trafficking during the war in Indochina, it is the development of the economy and increased demand for cheap labor that have attracted a huge number of illegal migrants from poor countries

Illegal immigrants employed in the shrimp business have no documents, their traveling options are nonexistent, they receive low wages or sometimes are not even paid. Working overtime for them is a common practice although they get no compensation for it.

This is precisely the situation for some 600,000 in the Thai shrimp business. Under the threat of enslavement or deportation, sometimes facing violence, torture and even murder, they are forced to work up to 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week, without the hope of receiving any compensation. Resistance is most likely met by illegal detention.

According to a separate report prepared by Human Rights Watch, migrants not only have to face long periods in detention but are also deprived of their right to appeal against such practices.

The gravity of these human rights violations becomes even more evident taking into account that it is not only migrants who are subjected to the use of force, but also their children. Human rights Watch estimated that there are almost 375,000 migrant children in Thailand, including children of migrant workers from neighboring countries, and children who are refugees and seeking asylum. However, these migrant children are not treated any differently from adults, leading to causing many physical and psychological disabilities.

These and such other reports have adequately brought to limelight the fact that the Thai shrimp industry is so much dependent on these techniques of subjugation that it would face serious economic problems without migrant workers. It is a common economic principle that employment of cheap labour leads to cheap production of the goods produced.

Employment of cheap labour in the shrimp business thus allows Thai companies to attract many international buyers. But, aren’t these buyers directly or indirectly involved in perpetuating bonded labour in Thailand?

The Guardian clearly accuses some of the world’s leading retailers including Costco, Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco as responsible for the spread of slavery in Thailand due to purchases of its products. However, in order to maintain a “positive” image, these companies are willing to restrict or even ban the import of shrimp from Thailand. This could, if it ever happened, deal a heavy blow to the Thai economy, whose annual revenue is US$7 billion from shrimp exports. According to some experts, these measures, if implemented effectively, should force the Thai government to prosecute slave traders and ensure the observance and protection of basic human rights.

One the other end of spectrum, once Thailand is declared a human trafficking haven by the US State Department, complications in US-Thai bilateral trade are quick to follow, even though the publication of the report does not automatically lead to punishment. But it appears quite plausible that Thailand will now have a hard time negotiating free trade agreements with both the United States and the European Union, which are “highly concerned” with labor law violations in Thai shrimp business.

Besides having a hard time negotiating trade agreements, Thailand may also have to face difficulties in getting the required amount of official development assistance from the US. It could also face trouble in getting loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Thailand companies can also end up in the blacklist which would limit their access to the world markets.

Notwithstanding the official response of Thai government to this report, which not only expressed Thailand’s disagreement with the conclusions but also re-emphasized its commitment to continue its policy of combating human trafficking according to global standards, the fact remains that the level of exploitation, as we know it, may end up in the imposition of economic sanctions, even though imposition of economic sanctions would bring more problems for those trapped in the chains of bondage.

Notwithstanding the age of globalization we are living in, issues of human rights violations and human trafficking continue to pose critical questions to the extent of the benefits of globalization being enjoyed by the subalterns, especially those hailing from underdeveloped countries.

That globalization has failed---notwithstanding its rhetoric---- to bring any meaningful change in the material conditions of the life of these people is strong evidence of the improbability of globalization having the capacity to change the world alone.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is an academician who writes regularly for Asia Sentinel.