BANGKOK — Thailand must empower victims of trafficking and forced labor to complain and must crack down on corrupt officials if it wants to tackle its human trafficking problem, activists and food industry executives say.
Thailand is scrambling to clean up its act after the US State Department named it in June as one of the world’s worst centers for human trafficking, saying it was a source, destination and transit country for forced labor.
The State Department said most victims of trafficking in Thailand were from neighboring countries and were forced or defrauded into labor, with tens of thousands exploited in the commercial sex trade, on fishing boats or as domestic servants.
As it prepares to submit a report on 2014 to the State Department by March, Thailand has announced a slew of measures including steep fines for offenders and a budget to hire 700 anti-corruption staff to investigate cases.
In interviews with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, rights activists, Thai food industry association leaders and executives of the world’s largest seafood companies—some of which have been accused of exploiting trafficked and forced labor—said serious law enforcement was key.
“The law enforcement system is broken and corrupt. The people responsible for enforcing the law and ensuring security often are the people who are complicit in the abuses,” said Andy Hall, a migrant rights researcher and activist.
“It’s not like it’s a secret. It’s not like it’s difficult to investigate and punish people involved. … There needs to be a push to stop this kind of behavior. There needs to be a crackdown.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai reiterated on Monday a government vow to go after perpetrators of human trafficking “no matter what uniform they’re wearing.”
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said this empty promise has been repeated over the years but never yields results.
“What makes this Thai government think the outcome of yet another ‘corrupt officials’ campaign is going to be any different this time? At best, a couple of officials who are small fish and less well connected than others will be caught and made examples of, but not much will change,” Robertson said.
Robertson and other activists urged the Thai government to empower migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos—the majority of trafficking victims—to defend themselves.
The government has registered 1.6 million previously undocumented migrant workers, which should help combat trafficking by giving them legal papers.
What this means, in principle, is that “no one can stop them on the street, no one can arbitrarily detain them or deport them or ask them for money,” said Jeff Labovitz, the head of the International Organization for Migration in Thailand.
However, activists say workers must have freedom of movement and the right to change employers as they wish. Many migrants have their passports and documents confiscated by employers or labor agents, making them vulnerable to arrest, harassment or extortion.
They should also be able to complain without retaliation.
“Empowered migrant communities will fight back against traffickers, and could become the Thai government’s best ally in identifying human traffickers and going after them,” Robertson said.
In addition to registering migrants, the Thai Frozen Foods Association proposed registering brokers and setting clear limits on their fees to prevent them from deceiving laborers.
Thiraphong Chansiri, the president and CEO of Thai Union Group—the world’s largest producer of canned tuna which owns Chicken of the Sea and recently purchased Bumble Bee Seafoods for US$1.5 billion—urged closer coordination among government agencies.
He also pressed the private sector to ensure their operations upheld good labor practices and complied with labor laws in the entire supply chain.
Charoen Phokphand Foods Plc (CP Foods)—which a probe by Britain’s Guardian newspaper last year alleged had labor violations in its shrimp supply chain—offered the most concrete examples of efforts to ensure a clean supply chain.
“While we found no evidence of labor abuses in our entire supply chain, we have nonetheless completely locked down our supply chain to 30 fishmeal plants and 380 fishing vessels, for which we have full visibility and traceability on sustainability and social issues,” said Andy Lohawatanakul, senior vice president of CP Foods.
The company is conducting on-site audits of fishmeal producers with the Department of Labor Welfare and Protection and the Department of Fisheries, he said.
“Only those fish meal suppliers [and the fishing vessels they work with] who agree that they will record crew manifests at every arrival and departure from port, record and keep full vessel fishing logs, and agree to regular audits will be approved as suppliers to CP Foods.”