Migrants, CSOs and the battle for labour rights in Thailand
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Migrants, CSOs and the battle for labour rights in Thailand

MIGRANT workers in Thailand are discriminated against, scapegoated, vulnerable to exploitation, and human rights abuses. Over the years, Civil Society Organizations (CSO) have played a key role in providing support, empowering communities and documenting abusive practices against migrant workers in Thailand. 

Thailand in 2015 had numerous instances of discrimination and labour abuses against migrants. In the coming year, CSOs should continue to be an integrated part of providing services and documenting abuses against migrants. In December 2015, a panel discussion in Bangkok led by Migrant Working Group (MWG) focused on ways CSOs can work with migrants in Thailand. There are over four million migrants living in Thailand today, with the majority from Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and Laos.

One example of CSO involvement and support of migrants was after the tragic murder of tourists Hannah Witheridge and David Miller British took place on September 15, 2014 on the island of Koh Tao. On December 24 last year, two Burmese migrant workers were found guilty of the brutal murders and were sentenced to death. The murder investigation was criticized due to the alleged torture of both migrants and mishandling of evidence by Thai police.

This case, and others like it, shows the lack of justice and agency migrants have in Thailand. However, continued collaboration with CSOs, government and business can bring about better services and rights for migrants.

“There must be a thorough and impartial investigation into these claims of torture, which the police itself should not be involved in,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

CSOs Work with the Business Sector

A report by Associated Press (AP) exposed hundreds of small shrimp peeling factories in Samut Sakon’s underground economy, with men, women and children made to work for little or no pay. There is complicity and corruption among police and state authorities. The AP report stated that “pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers.” Prime Minister’s Office spokesman, Sansern Kaewkamnerd, said of the AP report, “this is a one-sided, extremely irresponsible report. It has tarnished Thailand’s image even as the government is seriously cracking down on illegal and slave workers, especially in the seafood industry.”

The business community was more accepting of the report. Thai Union Group (TU), one of the world’s largest seafood producers, called the report “another wake-up call for the industry.” However, there have been major documented abuses of migrant workers taking place in TU facilities. The New York Times released a report linking trafficking and slave labour to TU’s supply chain. Furthermore, Nestlé put out a report showing forced labour in its seafood supply chain in Thailand and has made commitments to stop such practices. Businesses hiring migrants in 2016 should continue to support and end pervasive exploitation in the industry and collaborate with CSOs.

Numerous CSOs have started partnerships with businesses; for example, TU and Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), a CSO working with migrants, formed a collaborative effort to provide migrant children with access to education. Another very promising partnership is between MWRN and TU who is committed to allow MWRN full and transparent access to its five seafood export facilities in Thailand.

MWRN is a membership-based organization for migrant workers primarily from Burma. Andy Hall, an advisor to MWRN, who has been working with migrants in Thailand for over 10 years, described the MWRN as a “workers voice organization” in a phone interview, emphasizing the need for workers voices to be heard and for solutions to come from “participation and local knowledge.”

British human rights activist Andy Hall, center, talks to reporters at Phra Khanong provincial court before a trial in Bangkok, Thailand Tuesday earlier this month. Pic: AP.

British human rights activist Andy Hall. Pic: AP.

“Businesses have better relationship with the government than CSOs. I think it is more effective to work with businesses who can then pressure the government,” Hall added.

In 2013 Natural Fruit Company sued Hall for defamation under the Computer Crimes Act for documenting and exposing abuses against migrants in a report by Finnwatch called, “Cheap Has a High Price.” Hall has been ordered to surrender himself to custody this week prior to his official indictment on defamation charges.

CSOs Combating Trafficking of Migrants and Refugees 

Migrant workers remain vulnerable to human trafficking in the region. Recently, one of the chief investigators in a high profile trafficking case, Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, fled the country to Australia following alleged threats to his life. Paween led the team of investigators and prosecutors in unveiling human trafficking syndicates that brought about the arrest of 91 individuals earlier this year, including government officials. Thai police have considered filing a defamation suit against him. According to human rights group Fortify Rights, only 12 of 500 witnesses are receiving protection during the high profile trafficking case. CSOs have been at the forefront of providing assistance and tools to migrant workers on safe and informed migration.

Regional Technical Coordinator of UN Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT), Paul Buckley, said that, “CSOs are on the front line of counter-trafficking efforts, identifying victims and providing assistance and information to those in need.”

In the midst of this landscape, CSOs have a major role to play in empowering and providing services to migrant workers vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation in Thailand. Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said during the panel discussion that,“Thai fishing fleets have operated outside the law for decades.” He confirmed that many of the investigative reports in recent years exposing human rights abuses in the labour industry would not have been possible “without CSOs’ on-the-ground knowledge and local understanding of the environment.”

“CSOs provide a much needed source of information and advocacy on rights protection for migrant workers and they are most effective when working to empower migrant workers themselves,” Buckley added.

ILO GLP Program 

Citing the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Good Labour Practices (GLP) program as an example, Hall believes some recent approaches are ineffective, stating the program has, “fundamentally failed” according to the Bangkok Post.

The program was funded by the United States Department of Labour and is now being funded by the EU. It focuses its efforts on seafood factories, child labour and Thai fishing boats. Hall said in a phone interview that the ILO should start “facilitating a tripartite dialogue… educate workers about their rights and create social dialogue between workers, employers and governments.”

He voiced concern about the merits of the ILO GLP program and the amount of funds spent, and the overall effectiveness of the program. Compared to CSOs, Hall said he was “not sure what the ILO can add.” The main barrier to the program success is that workers are not giving enough voice in the process.

Max Tuñón, ILO Senior Program Officer and Coordinator of the GMS TRIANGLE project said in an interview that the GLP program is not a magic bullet but just a piece in a larger puzzle. Tuñón, added that the program wants to start working closer with industry and business to solve disputes. The program needs to have a “results framework” for measuring its impact said Tuñón

Although there are differing views on the GLP program, it can be seen that further coordination and collaboration is needed. Hopefully in 2016 there will be sustained collaboration among CSOs, government and multilateral organizations working to assist and participate with migrants in Thailand. Through this participatory approach migrants will be able to gain more access to services and human rights.

Kohnwilai Teppunkunngam, a lawyer working with migrants, said at the panel discussion she believes CSOs, “are the first to reach out to migrants and will be the last to leave.”

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About the author:
John Quinley III is a Bangkok-based researcher focused on human rights, migrants, and development in Southeast Asia, particularly Burma and Thailand. Find him on Twitter @johnquinley3