Slave labour won’t save Thailand’s economy, but European action can
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Slave labour won’t save Thailand’s economy, but European action can

By Rob Edens

TO Southeast Asia pundits, it comes as little surprise that Thailand’s economy is in the doldrums, faring significantly worse than most of its regional peers. Financially, it continues to perform alarmingly poorly, spluttering from one poor set of results to the next. With no path for recovery in sight, this is an economy already both morally and financially bankrupt. After close scrutiny of Thailand’s reliance on cruel slave labour to prop up its fishing industry, and many others, the time has come for Europe to use its considerable financial muscle to ensure that Bangkok’s junta understands that an economy riddled with bad practices is a false economy doomed to failure.

In raw financial terms, the Thai economy is in serious decline. The country’s trade surplus has just reached a five-year high, with exports plunging for a ninth straight month. Unable to ignore the downward spiral, Thailand’s central bank has slashed growth forecasts three times this year. Meanwhile, the World Bank recently warned that Thailand is the “worst performing economy in Asean.” And the outlook is further blackened by an over-reliance on a precarious tourism industry, especially in light of August’s deadly terror attack in Bangkok. It is perhaps a sign of both the regime’s duplicity and its desperation that the country’s ruler General Prayuth Chan-ocha recently welcomed Somkid Jatusripitak as his new economics tsar and Deputy Prime Minister. Somkid was considered the brains behind “Thaksinomics” under Prayuth’s arch-rival, ousted former-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and has seemingly been tasked with working the same magic which helped fuel Thailand’s economy previously.

But first, Thailand’s economic woes must be placed in context. The country’s relative wealth in comparison with others in the region has made it a magnet for poverty-stricken workers from Cambodia, Laos and Burma (Myanmar). Around 2.2 million workers from these neighbours are registered in Thailand, and many others labour with no paperwork. Their desperation for a better life, coupled with a blind eye, has made Thailand fertile ground for exploitation. While Europe has been dramatically thrust towards the epicentre of a global migration crisis, Thailand sits quietly at the heart of Southeast Asian migrant exploitation.

“Europe has the economic might to make a difference, it must now demonstrate the willpower to do so.”

The appalling abuse, which is particularly rife in Thailand’s fishing industry, has been well documented, with a recent U.S. State Department report detailing the slave-like conditions on many Thai fishing vessels. Meanwhile, the Guardian revealed just last year that migrants were being starved, beaten and chained in the quest to maximise seafood profits. And countless others have simply been murdered by brutal taskmasters. It is difficult to know exactly how many are subjected to such suffering, but independent sources estimate 200,000 unregistered workers in the Thai fishing industry alone.

There are plenty of other black spots of abuse within the Thai economy, too. The U.S. State Department has called sex trafficking a persistent and “significant problem”. Meanwhile, thousands are crammed into shantytowns on the periphery of Bangkok and other major cities, undertaking dangerous, unregulated and back-breaking manual jobs in construction. Two years ago, British human rights activist Andy Hall contributed to a detailed report documenting violence, underage labour and the confiscation of Burmese workers’ passports at the National Fruit Company, a large pineapple wholesaler which supplies the European Union. Subsequently, he was charged with criminal defamation and if found guilty could receive a seven-year prison sentence.

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.

Hall’s plight should come as no surprise. It is just one example of a regime that ignores rampant abuse and often greases its wheels. Some Thai officials have been complicit in trafficking violations and Human Rights Watch believes that Thai police actively protect traffickers who effectively imprison and forcibly transfer migrants. The Prayuth government has made scant effort to combat this terrible record, beyond isolated arrests and a purely cosmetic “anti-human trafficking day“.

However, with the Thai economy creaking, Bangkok’s generals have not been rewarded for favouring brutality and greed. The European Union (EU) has taken a principled stance until now, suspending free trade talks after last year’s coup. And in April, the EU handed Thailand a “yellow card”, a warning to overhaul its unregulated fishing industry, or else risk a “red card” import ban, with a decision pending in December. Linnea Engstrom MEP, deputy chair of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee recently emphasised that greater regulation of the world’s third largest fisheries exporter, could lead to “conquering of trafficking and slave-like conditions in the sector.”

The “red card” is a step Brussels must not shirk, particularly because Thailand’s response to its economic plight has so far been ‘business as usual’. Rather than tackling human rights abuses, the government has instead launched an international roadshow to boost business and is pursuing expanded trade relations with other serial human rights offenders, such as Qatar.

A “red card” ban would send a clear message that continued abuse comes at a hefty price. Force, albeit financial, is often the only language military generals are likely to understand. Likewise, Brussels has been unafraid to slap asset freezes and travel bans on officials from Belarus, Russia and Iran on account of their shameful ethical record. The same must apply to Thailand. Not only would sanctions impact the regime’s bottom line, but the domestic reputational damage would be significant should restrictions be imposed by a major market such as Europe.

With the economy already teetering on the edge, Thailand’s junta must understand that repression and support for abuse will not stave off economic ruin. The route to recovery lies in determined reform and respect for human rights. Europe has the economic might to make a difference, it must now demonstrate the willpower to do so.