AP with some background last week:
Next week, when a U.S. report on human trafficking comes out, Thailand may be punished for allowing that exploitation. The country has been on a U.S. State Department human trafficking watch list for the past four years. Washington warned in last year’s report that without major improvements, it would be dropped to the lowest rung, Tier 3, joining the ranks of North Korea, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe.
Though Thailand says it is trying to prevent such abuses and punish traffickers, its authorities have been part of the problem. The U.S. has said the involvement of corrupt officials appears to be widespread, from protecting brothels and workplaces to cooperating directly with traffickers.
A downgrade could lead the U.S. to pull back certain forms of foreign support and exchange programs as well as oppose assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank. Washington has already cut some assistance to Bangkok following last month’s Thai military coup.
Thailand is paying a U.S. public relations company $51,000 a month to help in its push for better standing. The government issued a progress report for 2013, noting that investigations, prosecutions and the budget for anti-trafficking work all are on the rise.
“We recognize that it’s a very serious, very significant problem, and we’ve been building a legal and bureaucratic framework to try to address these issues,” said Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Thailand’s ambassador to the U.S. “We feel that we have turned a corner and are making great progress in this area.”
At least 38 Thai police were punished last year or are being investigated for alleged involvement in trafficking, but none has stood trial yet. Four companies have been fined, and criminal charges against five others are pending. But the government pulled the licenses of only two of the country’s numerous labor recruitment agencies.
In Geneva on Wednesday, Thailand was the only government in the world to vote against a new U.N. international treaty that combats forced labor by, among other things, strengthening victims’ access to compensation. Several countries abstained [BP: See further comments below].
“Thailand tries to portray itself as the victim while, at the same time, it’s busy taking advantage of everybody it can who’s coming through the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The exploitation of migrants, the trafficking, it comes through Thailand because people know they can pay people in the government and in the police to look the other way.”
Thailand shipped some $7 billion worth of seafood abroad last year, making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Most went to Japan and the U.S., where it ranks as the No. 3 foreign supplier.
The United Nations estimates the industry employs 2 million people, but it still faces a massive worker shortage. Many Thais are unwilling to take the low-paid, dangerous jobs that can require fishermen to be at sea for months or even years at a time.
An estimated 200,000 migrants, mostly from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia, are laboring on Thai boats, according to the Bangkok-based nonprofit Raks Thai Foundation. Some go voluntarily, but a U.N. survey last year of nearly 600 workers in the fishing industry found that almost none had a signed contract, and about 40 percent had wages cut without explanation. Children were also found on board.
Forced or coerced work is more common in certain sectors, including deep-sea fishing and seafood processing plants where some workers have reported being drugged and kidnapped.
Long-haul fishermen like Chan have it the worst. They are worked around the clock seven days a week with very little food and often no clean water. They risk getting fouled in lines, being swept overboard during storms or losing fingers cleaning fish.
A 2009 U.N. report found that about six out of 10 migrant workers on Thai fishing boats reported seeing a co-worker killed. Chan faced abuse himself and saw one sick Burmese fisherman die. The captain simply dumped the body overboard.
Thailand’s progress report highlighted increased boat and workplace inspections, but the U.S. has said those do not combat trafficking in an industry where “overall impunity for exploitative labor practices” is seen. The U.S. recommends increased prosecutions of employers involved in human trafficking.
The problem is also rampant in the country’s notorious sex industry. More than three-quarters of trafficking investigations launched last year in Thailand involved sexual exploitation. Thai girls and women were abused along with those from neighboring countries.
Another challenge surrounds the recent influx of Rohingya Muslims. An estimated 75,000 have fled Myanmar since communal violence exploded there two years ago, according to Chris Lewa of the nonprofit Arakan Project. The Buddhist-dominated country considers Rohingya to be noncitizens from Bangladesh, though many were born in Myanmar.
Many Rohingya brought to Thailand are held at rubber plantations or forest camps by armed guards until they can find a way to pay the typical asking price of $2,000 for their release, according to victims and rights groups. Those who get the money often cross the border into Malaysia, where tens of thousands of Rohingya have found refuge. Those who don’t are sometimes sold for sex, forced labor, or they are simply left to die.
The Thai government, however, does not address these asylum seekers as trafficking victims in its report. It said fleeing Rohingya enter Thailand willingly, even though “most of them fall prey to smugglers and illegal middlemen.” However, Vijavat, the Thai ambassador, said some cases are now being treated as trafficking.
From the 2013 report:
The Government of Thailand does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The government has not shown sufficient evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking compared to the previous year; therefore, Thailand is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for a fourth consecutive year. Thailand was granted a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3 because the government has a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is devoting sufficient resources to implement that plan. The government disbursed the equivalent of approximately $3.7 million for anti-trafficking efforts in 2012 and reported investigating 305 trafficking cases, versus 83 in 2011, but initiated prosecutions in only 27 cases during the year and obtained only 10 convictions. In order to incentivize victims to testify, the government issued more temporary work permits to victims who participated in prosecutions. The government registered more than 800,000 undocumented migrants over the course of the year, but it failed to adequately regulate brokers, reduce the high costs associated with registration, or allow registered migrants to change employers. Pervasive trafficking-related corruption and weak interagency coordination continued to impede progress in combating trafficking.
The tiers per the US State Department:
Countries whose governments fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.
Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
TIER 2 WATCH LIST
Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND:
a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing;
b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or
c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.
Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.
Some in the seafood industry are resigned to a downgrade. Undercurrents:
This, combined with the pressure the lack of shrimp raw material in early mortality syndrome (EMS)-hit Thailand is putting on the sector, presents a chance for the industry to “upgrade”, said Choopong Lueskprasert, managing director of Thai shrimp processor Marine Gold Products, one of the country’s largest processors.
“The situation with the raw material and also with the prospect of the Tier 3 downgrade means there is the chance to upgrade the whole industry,” he told Undercurrent News.
“Even if we are lucky and we are not downgraded, we still have to fix this and clean up the industry,” said Lueskprasert.
Achara Deboonme in The Nation:
In April, US lawmakers called on the Obama administration to punish countries that do too little to fight human trafficking, including Thailand and Malaysia, adding that Myanmar should not be allowed to evade possible sanctions over its record.
Whatever the verdict of the trafficking report, it’s time that all Thais paid more attention to this issue. Though second-largest in Asean, Thailand’s economy is small compared with, say, China’s. It is thus obvious that we remain dependent on external support.
Likely influenced by the Guardian report, Carrefour has suspended its purchase of prawns from CPF. And that’s just a taste of will happen if Thailand’s ranking drops to Tier 3 in the TIP report. It might take some time for the ramifications to sink in here, but sooner or later Thais will feel the pain of showing no mercy to non-Thais.
EJF has a summary of the Thai vote at the ILO:
The Protocol, which will be added to the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (No. 29), requires countries “to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms”.
Despite growing international pressure, including a recent exposé by the Guardian newspaper into trafficking and forced labour in the Thai seafood industry and sustained campaigns from civil society, Thailand’s military Government has sent a clear message that it stands alone in opposition to strengthening the Convention.
During the annual International Labour Conference (ILC) held in Geneva on Wednesday, there were a total of eight votes against the Protocol, with four coming from representatives of employers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Malaysia and Slovenia. The remaining four votes all came from Thailand, with the Government accounting for two votes while Thai employers and workers representatives contributed one vote each. The decision to stand against the Protocol further highlights Thailand’s isolation as the rest of the world takes meaningful steps to tackle the problem of forced labour, thought to affect some 21 million people around the world.
Thailand’s rejection of the Protocol on forced labour follows decades of refusal to ratify other conventions – including ILO C.87 and C.98 – to protect the rights of workers and migrants within its export-oriented economy.
BP: You read that right, Thailand was the only country where the government representatives voted against the Protocol (again, the only). Below is a list of the Thai delegates for the meeting from the ILO site for 103rd Session of the International Labour Conference:
THONGPHAKDI, Thani, Mr, Ambassador, Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission, Geneva.
ROEKCHAMNONG, Krerkpan, Mr, Minister, Deputy Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission, Geneva.
ROMCHATTHONG, Siriwan, Mrs, Secretary-General,
Employers’ Confederation of Thailand.
NARAWONG, Saman, Mr, Committee, National Congress
of Thai Labour.
BP: There are another 30+ substitute delegates or advisors for the various categories, but the government representatives are both long-time Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees (foreign journalists who have been here a few years will remember Thani no doubt who was the Director-General of the Department of Information at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also spokesperson back in 2010 when there was a lot of tension between the then government and journalists). The government representatives were not recalled for failure to vote in accordance with the wishes of the junta.
MFA on the reasons for the vote against the Protocol:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to address the news which reported Thailand being the only country to oppose the vote on the adoption of new ILO Protocol to supplement the ILO Convention on Forced Labour No.29 on 11 June 2014 and subsequent reports on the issues of human trafficking, forced labour and child labour problems in Thailand.
On 13 June 2014, Mr. Sek Wannamethee, Director-General of Information and Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave an interview with the press regarding this issue. Labour Attache at Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva have issued a statement at the 321st session of the International Labour Organization Governing Body reaffirming Thailand’s commitment to and recognition of the significance of the elimination of forced labour in compliance with the Forced Labour Convention (NO.29). However, to adopt any specific instrument, Thailand has to seriously consider her own readiness to implement such an instrument, in conformity with relevant Thai laws. Therefore, Thailand did not vote in favour of the Protocol but vote in support of the Recommendation as it could promptly be implemented.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to further reiterate the importance of this issue and Thailand’s strong commitment to eliminate forced or compulsory labour. Thailand, therefore, joins the consensus in adopting the said Protocol bearing in mind our need to proceed in accordance with our domestic legal requirements.
BP: Well, there is the abstain option then, but for whatever reason, Thailand decided to vote against adopting the new Protocol although a few days later changed their mind (UPDATE: To clarify, Thailand cannot reverse its vote, but they like any other country can ratify the Protocol). Undercurrents again:
Seemingly at the worst possible time, Thailand last week voted against an ILO protocol designed to strengthen the fight against labor issues. Days later it reversed this decision amid a tumult of anger from NGOs and the public, stating it was unclear whether it had the power to ratify a treaty while its political situation was still as confused as it is.
BP: Well, there are no constitutional limits on junta powers. The word “shambles” comes to mind and at a time when Thailand best needed to convey a message on taking these issues seriously, the government votes against the Protocol. No doubt some from the US side were paying attention….
Although a Tier 3 designation for Thailand is important, said Mr. [John] Sifton [Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch], the sanctions it would pale in comparison to those put in place following last month’s coup. “It would be symbolic at this point, but it is important that it happens,” he said. “Monitoring is very difficult and it’s not a perfect prophylactic to stop abuse. Ultimately you need government enforcement and that is the missing link.”
“Under US law there is a time limit how many years a country can stay on the tier-2 watch list before it is automatically downgraded to tier 3,” said former US trafficking ambassador Mark Lagon, now a professor at Georgetown University.
“If the US government determines that Thailand has made improvements it can be raised up, but if it has not, there is no longer an opportunity to have any waivers or delay.”
Lagon said Thailand was at a “critical juncture” with the annual report due to be released within days and the country facing international “moral opprobrium” for receiving the lowest possible ranking.
Western diplomats told VOA they expect Thailand to be dropped to Tier 3.
The director general of the American department at Thailand’s foreign ministry, Songsak Saicheua, told VOA if the United States is objective, he is confident the kingdom will move up — not down — in the report.
“But if it happens that we will be downgraded to be Tier 3 we are prepared to go ahead with all efforts to combat human trafficking. We will intensify the prosecution and law enforcement, step up protection and prevention system, increase and expand international partnerships with other countries,” said Songsak.
Thailand could face economic sanctions and loss of development aid if it is blacklisted. Songsak does not expect any direct impact, though, based on how other countries have fared that were placed in the bottom tier.
“It might have some sort of psychological effect on the consumer of the U.S. or Europe and so on,” said Songsak. “Then we will also have to work closely with the buyers in the United States and also the European market to make sure they understand our efforts and they understand the process and what is going on in Thailand.”
BP: Yes, Thailand disagrees and wants an upgrade.
A group of organizations including the AFLCIO and HRW have signed a joint letter to downgrade Thailand to Tier III:
We understand that Thailand is an important ally of the United States, and that you have a number of bilateral issues to consider. However, the United States should make very clear its concern about the systematic abuse of migrant workers in Thailand, who produce products destined for the U.S. market. If Thailand is allowed to continue its practice of undertaking cosmetic efforts at addressing the issue of human trafficking while ignoring or even encouraging the root causes of the problem, it will continue to get worse. The United States should evaluate the Government of Thailand rigorously and hold it accountable to the standards laid out in the TVPRA by moving Thailand to Tier III in the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. Far from making credible efforts to fight trafficking, the Thai government has perpetuated policies that foster trafficking of migrant workers within its borders and deny them access to protection and redress.
BP: An upgrade isn’t going to happen. It is more the question whether Thailand can avoid a downgrade, but from the former US trafficking ambassador quoted by The Guardian a further waiver is no longer possible and have not read anything to the contrary. Whether there is some override of the requirements or exceptional circumstances provision where the Secretary of State or someone else can extend the waiver, BP is unsure. However, in the aftermath of the coup, where it is clear that the U.S. is not supportive of the coup, Thailand has few chits left to argue for special favours. The last minute effort by the junta is unlikely to stop this….