The Traffic in Humans to Fill Jobs Thais Don't Want to Do

Migrant fishermen from Myanmar wash themselves after returning from the ocean to Ban Nam Khem, Thailand, December 14, 2014. For decades, Thailand has been a source country for trafficked people, a transit country and a destination for trafficked men and women, who come mostly from poorer neighboring states to work in industries such as fishing and seafood. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Human trafficking has long been a serious problem in Thailand. For decades, Thailand has been a source country for trafficked people, a transit country and a destination for trafficked men and women, who come mostly from poorer neighboring states.

(By some estimates, at least two million people from Myanmar alone are working in Thailand illegally, and many of these Myanmar citizens were trafficked to Thailand.)

Men and women are trafficked to the kingdom to work in Thailand's construction, sex, seafood and domestic service industries, among other sectors of the economy.

The scope of the trafficking problem is hardly unknown: The Thai government first began high-level discussions of trafficking nearly three decades ago, in 1990, according to a study of regional anti-trafficking efforts by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. In 1997, the government passed a new anti-trafficking law, and since then it has regularly passed anti-trafficking legislation.

For decades, however, the Thai government and Thai civil society focused mainly on human trafficking related to sex work. The country was commended by international organizations for some aspects of its approach, including public campaigns to inform sex workers about HIV/AIDS and providing free condoms and other types of contraception to some sex workers. (To be sure, the government's still did little to improve the basic rights of many sex workers—particularly for those outside Bangkok nightlife areas and those living in Thailand illegally.)

At the same time, the Thai government, Thai civil society, and many international rights organizations paid less attention to the role trafficking played in other Thai industries—namely seafood canning, fishing and construction. Demand for foreign labor remains high in these industries in the kingdom.

As fewer and fewer Thai nationals want to work in the dangerous and low-paying fishing and seafood industries, Thailand's fishing and seafood companies have faced a regular shortfall of labor. The United Nations estimates that Thai fishing companies need to employ an extra 50,000 migrant workers every year to fill vacant jobs.

Only in the past five years has the focus of anti-trafficking efforts in the kingdom truly broadened to include serious efforts to expose and combat modern-day slavery in the seafood and fishing industries, several of which are dominated by some of Thailand's largest, most influential companies. The Thai Union Group, for instance, is the world's biggest processor of canned tuna.

The focus has shifted to trafficking in these industries in large part because of the efforts of foreign media outlets, like The Guardian, the Associated Press and Reuters, and efforts by international rights groups like the Environmental Justice Foundation. (One of the most comprehensive Guardian stories on modern-day slavery in Thailand can be found here.)

The Thai government has demonstrated a mixed, somewhat confused response to these revelations of widespread trafficking in the seafood and fishing industries. There are some signs of increased enforcement of Thai labor laws. Thailand has filed charges in the last year against at least one hundred people allegedly involved in trafficking. The junta also has sent several senior officials from the Foreign Ministry around the world to convince important trading partners that the regime is serious about combating trafficking.

Yet the Thai government also may be stonewalling investigations that could implicate senior army and police officials in trafficking organizations. Reporting by Reuters and other outlets has suggested that navy officers and other military officials are directly involved in the smuggling of Rohingya and other migrants for the seafood and fishing industries.

In part, the junta has tried to intimidate reporters from tracking links between trafficking and the armed forces. The Thai navy filed defamation charges against Phuket Wan, a news site based on the resort island, for essentially republishing a lengthy Reuters report that implicated the navy in the trafficking of Rohingya. (The Phuket Wan pair was acquitted in September.)

Indeed, perceptions of Thailand's failure to take effective action against trafficking in these industries were a major reason why the country was downgraded to the lowest tier in the U.S. State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons report.

The clearest evidence that the Thai government is not fully committed to the fight against trafficking emerged last week. As the New York Times reported, one of Thailand's most senior anti-trafficking investigators, Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, has fled the country and asked for asylum in Australia, after quitting the police last month. The Major General apparently fears that, if he remains in Thailand, senior officials implicated in some of the over one hundred cases he has pursued might try to have him killed.

The Thai government now is reportedly considering pursuing a defamation case against Major General Paween. Not exactly a sign of strong intent to follow up on Paween's charges.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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