Thailand under fire again for labor abuses

Rights groups highlight human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation of migrant workers
Thailand under fire again for labor abuses

Myanmar migrant workers prepare a fishing boat in the Thai coastal province of Samut Sakhon. Rights groups say that migrants are forced to work in slave-like conditions in the fishing sector, where boats often remain at sea for weeks at a time.(Photo: AFP)

Despite repeated promises by its government to clamp down on rights violations, Thailand’s labor market remains home to widespread human trafficking and blatant exploitation, rights groups say.

“Thailand continues be a country where workers are abused and exploited,” Esmeralda Lopez, a director of the International Labor Rights Forum, told Reuters news agency. “This is particularly the case in the fishing and garment sectors.”

The Southeast Asian nation, which is an economic powerhouse compared to its neighbors, has for years been slammed for failing to take adequate measures to stop the wanton exploitation of migrant workers from neighboring countries.

Its fishing, agricultural, construction and garment sectors have all been highlighted as places where abuses take place on a routine basis.

Millions of migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are employed in low-skilled jobs around Thailand, many of them illegally.

Afforded no legal protection, many of these workers find themselves having to work long hours for minimal pay, or even no pay at all, in squalid, dangerous or unhygienic settings.

In recent years, there have been numerous accounts of migrant workers being forced to work in slave-like conditions, especially in the fishing sector where boats often remain at sea for weeks at a time.

“The Thai government’s reforms in the fishing industry still fall far short of resolving serious labor rights abuses,” Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, warned in 2018.

The rights group called on the European Union to “use its leverage as a major seafood importer to demand changes to improve the lives of migrant fishing workers on Thai vessels.”

In response to a threat by the EU to ban the imports of seafood from Thailand, the country’s government promised to rein in abuses in the billion-dollar seafood industry.  

Two years on, however, the abuse of migrant workers remains as widespread as ever, according to the Thai Seafood Working Group (SWG), a broad-based coalition of labor, human rights and environmental groups that seeks to stop the use of forced labor and other exploitative practices.

The SWG has asked the US State Department to downgrade Thailand in its upcoming annual report on human trafficking, citing the country’s lack of progress in protecting migrant workers.

In its Trafficking in Persons Report last year the State Department ranked Thailand as a Tier 2 country, above the lowest ranking of Tier 3. The report commended Thai authorities for making concentrated efforts to combat human trafficking.

Rights groups disagree with that assessment, however, saying the country’s efforts remain inadequate despite some progress.

In a newly released report, the International Labour Organization says that in its survey of 470 low-skilled workers nearly 10 percent of Thais, Burmese and Cambodians employed in Thailand’s fishing and seafood sectors have been victims of forced labor.

“These findings would indicate that tens of thousands of workers in Thai fishing and processing are working in forced labor conditions. This is unacceptable,” researchers said in their report.

Lt. Gen. Jaruvat Vaisaya, who spearheads anti-trafficking policing in Thailand, took issues with that claim. “Almost no trafficking exists in the fishing sector and we have continuously arrested [people who have exploited women],” Jaruvat told Reuters.

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