Thailand’s human trafficking rating: politicised by the US?

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By Dung Phan

On 30 June, the US State Department decided to remove Thailand from its blacklist of the countries with human trafficking problems. While being an annual opportunity to demand more actions from those countries, the report has triggered a debate as to whether it reflects the reality on the ground in Thailand.

In the latest edition of the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Thailand had been upgraded from Tier 3, the lowest ranking, to the Tier 2 watch list, indicating that the country has made efforts to combat human trafficking, especially in its seafood industry.

However, many international rights groups have criticised the US government’s decision. Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, described the upgrade as being “the wrong decision at the wrong time”.

Meanwhile, Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that although Thailand had made some advances for the past year, “anyone who knows the situation knows Thailand is just scratching the surface.”

“We haven’t seen senior people – significant figures in the military and police – held accountable”, Adams said. “We haven’t seen [the government] going after the financial sector. The labour for Thai fishing boats and sex trafficking is a major business.”

After the report was released, the International Labour Rights Forum issued a strongly worded letter against the Thailand’s redesignation of its human trafficking problem, indicating “this move is premature and could undermine international efforts to significantly and permanently improve working conditions among migrant workers in Thailand.”

“We are very disappointed at this decision,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of International Labour Rights Forum. “Migrant workers are still one of the most vulnerable groups in the country to human trafficking, and Thailand has not shown any indication that it intends to allow migrant workers greater access to fundamental rights that would protect them from exploitation.”

Selectively targeted victims?

Although Thai officials have vowed to end human trafficking in all industries in the country, many recent legal amendments and regulations seem to demonstrate that the country’s effort selectively targets migrant workers in the fishing industry.

Domestic workers, for example, who are also among the most vulnerable group of migrants, are still left out from the Labour Protection Act. They continue to work in Thailand without the guarantee of a minimum wage and overtime pay.

The multi-billion dollar Thai seafood sector has been at the heart of a modern slavery scandal for many years. Since the country remains the third largest seafood exporter over the world, it is apparent that the government would want to focus on cleaning up the industry.

According to the government, there are 300,000 employees in the fishing industry, 90% of whom are migrant labourers. The majority of these workers are reported to be working illegally in Thailand.

Thailand has also run out of workers on fishing boats, as economic development has brought about better jobs for Thais. This shortage in the labour force in the seafood industry has therefore motivated human trafficking practices, with men from Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar being drawn into the industry with promises of high wages.

Ever since the horrific working conditions of slave labourers were exposed by a string of stories in BBC, Reuters, the Guardian and AP, the Thai government has actively worked to address the situation. Thailand has made efforts to tighten laws and witnessed the increasing number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of traffickers.

Although the country should be commended for its effort, this should not come at the expense of other groups of migrant workers.

The results were politically motivated?

When Malaysia similarly improved its rating by the US State Department from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 watch list last year, many human rights advocates cast their doubt over political involvement behind the preparation of the report. Malaysia has been recenetly regarded as an important ally for the Obama administration.

Now that the current administration has been unsettled by China’s ties with the Thai junta, many observers have similarly questioned if the upgrade was to smoothen relations with the Thai military junta.

Last August, a Reuters investigation reported that human rights experts at the US State Department did not see any improvement in trafficking conditions in Malaysia.

In particular, the report found that senior US diplomats “repeatedly overruled” the government office which was “set up to independently grade” anti-trafficking efforts and “inflating assessments of 14 strategically important countries,” including Malaysia. The results in report therefore appeared more positive for Thailand than the assessment given by the US State Department’s human rights officers.

Since Thailand was given a Tier 3 listing in the TIP report, it has been affected by the cutting of non-trade assistance from the US. So the upgrade in tier ranking matters quite a bit to Thailand. Besides, the military junta has an incentive to boost its record in tackling issues that former civilian governments did little about.