There’s little doubt that today the United States is one of the most active “fighters” for human rights all across the world. In its quest the US applies various means of putting pressure on the unwanted government, starting with the use of military force and ending with applying diplomatic means and economic sanctions. But how come Thailand – a faithful US ally got caught in the headlights? Why does the US want to punish Thailand?
In July 2014 the State Department in its annual report on human trafficking around the globe called the attempts of the Thai government to fight this phenomenon utterly ineffective. Out of a list of 188 countries Thailand scored the last place along with a total of 20 countries that are violating human rights by not fighting human trafficking, including North Korea, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“Trafficking” in its broadest sense implies exploitation of migrants by criminal organizations. According to the UN resolution 55/25: “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
It should be noted that trafficking is an issue in Thailand. This problem is not new and is extremely painful for Thai politicians. The economic growth in Thailand is accompanied by an increasing demand for unskilled and cheap labor. This demand is largely satisfied by ilegal migrants from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos most of which are employed in labor-intensive, dirty and low-prestige areas of Thai economy, mainly in agriculture and fishing. International experience suggests that in a situation when there is a lot of opportunities for employment accompanied by complicated visa procedures, the criminalization of migration business is quick to follow. As a rule, human trafficking is voluntary, and in most cases future migrants decide to move to another country for themselves. Once the decision is made they start seeking opportunities to travel abroad illegally.
The Guardian investigation suggests that workers are paying brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites but instead they are getting sold as slaves to boat captains, sometimes for as little as $420. At least that’s how British journalists are portraying the industry of shrimp fishing in Thailand.
The working conditions in the Thai shrimp business were investigated by Reuters, Environmental Justice Foundation and The Guardian. The results of these investigations served as evidence for American politicians to claim that Thai officials are neglecting the problem of human trafficking. According to the conclusions made by the UK and US experts and journalists, slavery is the key success factor of Thailand’s shrimp industry. Hence Thailand is violating the standards set by the American law, largely because “the government is making feeble efforts in the fight against the criminal business of human trafficking while corruption at all levels downplays attempts to persecute the criminals”.
Among Southeast Asian countries the title of the center of human trafficking is occupied by Thailand, where the annual revenue from this illegal busines amounts to 22-27 billion US dollars. This sum consitutes 50-60% of Thailand’s budget which shows that this business is even more profitable than drug trafficking. Over half a million people enslaved. Trafficking in Thailand has its own historical background and is associated with the boom of sex trafficking during the war in Indochina. But with the development of the economy and an increase in demand for cheap labor illegal migrants from poor countries of Indochina started to get “employed” in other businesses in Thailand ─ at the construction site, on farms and factories. In this case, it is the exploitative conditions of employment of illegal immigrants that allow us to classify these acts as “trafficking”.
Those illegal immigrants eployed in this shrimp business have no documents, they traveling options are nonexistent, they are getting low wages or sometimes they are not even paid. Working overtime for them is a common practice while they get no compensation for it. This is precisely the situation in which a total of 600 thousand people are employed in the Thai shrimp busness (90% of them can easily be sold into slavery). Under the threat of enslavement or deportation, while sustaining violence, torture and even murder, those poor souls are working up to 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week without any compensations. Sometimes they are at sea for years.
Human rights groups have repeatedly pointed out that the shortage of workers in the fishing industry, combined with a growing global demand for shrimps creates a need for cheap labor, which is provided by illegal immigrants. In their opinion, the second largest export in Thailand will decline without the use of slave labor.
But once Thailand is labelled as a human trafficking heaven by the US State Department, complications in the US-Thai bilateral trade are quick to follow, even though the publication of the report does not automatically lead to “punishment”, Thailand will now have a hard time negotiationing free trade agreements with both the United States and the European Union that are concerned with labor law violations in Thai shrimp business.
But the US has other options on the table to apply pressure on Thai officials by restricting the amount of official development assistance and limiting loans that Thailand can borrow from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Thailand companies can also end up in the black list which would limit their access to world markets. The world’s leading retailers Costco, Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco (which, according to journalists of The Guardian, are responsible for the spread of slavery in Thailand due to purchases of its products) in order to maintain their image among consumers are willing to restrict or even ban the import of shrimps from Thailand. This can deal a heavy blow to the Thai economy, which gets a revenue of around 7 billion US dollars annually from shrimp exports. According to experts, this measure should force the Thai government to prosecute slave traders and ensure the observance of human rights in Thailand.
Thailand responded to the publication of the above mentioned report with an official statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that was saying that Thailand did not agree with the conclusions of the State Department, but would continue its policy of combating human trafficking. Thailand carries out the fight against trafficking in persons in accordance with the standards adopted by the United States which means that the US had no pretext for lowering its rating on the human trafficking list. Thai Ambassador to the United States Vijavat Isarabhakdi noted that Thailand “is going to put an end to the exploitation of the people.”
Natalya Rogozhina, Ph.D in Political Sciences, Head Research Fellow at Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, special contribution for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.