Buckling under international pressure, Thailand cracks down on human trafficking
On their way out of Thailand, several workers boarded fishery trawlers to go offshore for fishing in the Indonesian sea, but they returned as trafficked entities.
The workers were rescued by Thai authorities and brought home on a Royal Thai Air Force C-130 aircraft.
News of the incident appeared in various media shortly before the water festival, when the military plane transported dozens of Thai fishermen, who had been stranded on the Ambon Island in the east of the Indonesian archipelago, to be reunited with their families.
A worker named Komsan Sakulchatthong, 24, said most people on board his vessel were willing to work as fishermen, but some had been lured and tricked into doing this work. "I worked hard but the living conditions on board were not too bad. Some captains were cruel, but they had a reason to be cruel," he said.
His statement reflected opposing views; one the darkness of human trafficking; and the second dealing with the need for a supply chain in the food industry.
According to the Thai Social Development and Human Security, nearly 550 men from Myanmar and Cambodia, most of them considered 'slaves' are trapped in the fishing industry and work on the Benjina and Tual islands in eastern Indonesia and are waiting to be rescued and taken home.
Thailand launched a campaign to boost its image vis-à-vis the practice of human trafficking following the United States' annual report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP), which had pegged Thailand in the lowest or Tier 3 last year.
As a result, Thai authorities have stepped up their monitoring of the situation over the past few months and hundreds of so-called 'forced labourers' working in harsh conditions on Thai trawlers in the Indonesian sea have been rescued.
The Thai government, under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, had announced in early April that it would combat human trafficking as part of its national agenda and mobilize all concerned agencies to tackle the problem.
The motivation behind this announcement was to inform the international community, particularly the United States, and to stop it from again rating Thailand poorly in its TIP report and to also prevent the European Union (EU)'s regulation on the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) Thai trade practices.
It has been widely speculated if any government would have taken this issue into account if Thailand had not been downgraded to a Tier 3 status in the TIP report last year.
Thai food producers, notably fish exporters, who are part of the supply chain for sea food products from the fishery trawlers, have said that from now on they will not accept child labour, forced labour, human trafficking or discrimination of any kind while hiring labourers.
Their rejection of these practices has come with the launch of a series of campaigns for good practices among production chains to counter allegations of use of slave labour.
The labour practices of Thai food exporters had become a cause for concern not only after the US TIP report was published, but also in EU, where supermarket Carrefour stopped buying prawns from Thai firm CP Foods last year, following media reports about the company's labour practices involving slavery.
The company had dismissed the report, but Thailand's status being downgraded in the TIP report on human trafficking was a likely repercussion of this incident and had also placed at stake the country's reputation on labour and human rights practices.
With the collaboration of the International Labour Organisation, Thailand had launched a Good Labour Practice (GLP) programme in September last year to improve working conditions in the fishing industry. There are 178 shrimp and seafood processing enterprises, which have entered voluntary pacts to implement the GLP, senior expert on International Fishery Affairs, Waraporn Prompoj, said.
A key element of the GLP programme is that companies would have to pay wages directly to the bank accounts of workers to ensure that no brokers or traffickers are involved, she said.
Fishing vessels, which hire more than eight workers, will be scrutinised. There will also be a joint inspection scheme carried out by six agencies, including the Marine Department, Marine police, Navy and the Department of Fisheries by means of port in-port out controls. They would inspect the legality of fishing operations and labour—migrant workers' registration, wages, forced labour and trafficking—no less than 400 times in the coming year, Prompoj said.
The fishery department would also enforce a policy that requires the installation of a GPS surveillance system on over 30 tonne-gross fishery trawlers.
Thailand has millions of migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Some 1.28 million have registered so far, while many cross the border with the help of traffickers to work in the country. The fishery sector has 49,000 registered migrant workers, said Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Labour Ministry, Puntrik Smiti.
According to a United Nations report, more than 90 per cent of workers on fishing boats have no job contracts and are basically unregulated.
On the law enforcement front, the Permanent Secretary of the Justice Ministry, Pol General Chatchawal Suksomjit, said Thailand had at least seven laws for combating human trafficking, including the 2008 Anti-human Trafficking Act, the 1979 Immigration Act, the 1998 Labour Protection Act, the 1947 Fishery Act, the 2008 Alien Working Act, the criminal code and maritime laws.
The authorities have prosecuted scores of cases of human trafficking in the fishing sector.
"We have discovered a new trend—workers being trafficked by brokers of the same nationalities [as the workers]," he said, noting that Thailand was cooperating with neighbouring countries, international organisations and NGOs for curbing this practice.
Combating trafficking would now focus on targeting traffickers, not the victims. The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security has developed programmes to help the victims, the Director of the Bureau of Anti-trafficking in Women and Children, Suwaree Jaiharn, said. Of the 1,543 trafficking victims rescued in Thailand during 2012 to 2014, 228 were forced to work on fishing boats.
The authorities would provide help to them, no matter what their status was, she said.
The Thai Fishery Producers Coalition is a private sector body, which is trying to stop the use of illegal labour, child and forced labour and trafficking, said Thai Fishery Producers Coalition Director Panisuan Jamnarnwej. Members of the group—eight fishery-related producers—will now have to comply with labour guidelines to combat child labour, forced labour and trafficking.
Members, who violate the guidelines could face a boycott by trade partners and the coalition would terminate their membership, he said. "We' will buy products only from our members, so those with a revoked membership would no longer be allowed to trade with us."
The coalition has also adopted certain measures to check labour conditions at member enterprises. Employers must make sure workers are not trafficked or are in debt bondage, are hit with involuntary overtime or are in any way restricted in their movements or ability to change their place of work, he said.
However, there is no indicator of whether these policies and actions would work to ease, if not end, human trafficking. At the time he launched the national agenda to combat human trafficking, Prime Minister Chan-o-cha said his government would be able to overcome the problem and Thai trade practices in this context would be recognised internationally.
The European Commission has today placed Thailand on formal notice for not taking sufficient steps in the international fight against illegal fishing (IUU).
As a result of a thorough analysis and a series of discussions with Thai authorities since 2011, the Commission has denounced the country's shortcomings in its monitoring of fisheries, controlling and sanctioning related systems and concluded that Thailand was not doing enough.
The European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, stated: "The EU's policy on harmful practices, such as illegal fishing, together with our genuine capacity to act, is paying off. I urge Thailand to join the EU in the fight for sustainable fisheries. A failure to take strong action against illegal fishing would have consequences."
*Copyright: The Nation/Asia News Network