1. The problem
Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in its region, Thailand has the highest estimated prevalence of modern slavery in the South-East Asia area. It is considered a hub of exploitation within the Greater Mekong sub-region, with victims of slavery originating from both within and outside Thailand’s borders. Modern slavery affects some men, women and children from within Thailand, however victims are largely migrant workers from surrounding countries.5
Human trafficking is a significant problem in Thailand, with people trafficked out of Thailand to countries like China, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Africa and the USA. Thai women are particularly vulnerable to trafficking into the forced domestic and sex industries in countries all over the world, lured by seemingly genuine job offers, but often exploited via debt bondage.6 Alternatively, victims originating from Cambodia, Myanmar, Lao PDR and Vietnam are also subject to slavery within Thailand.7
Thailand’s recent growing economic prosperity, and extremely low levels of unemployment (the fourth lowest worldwide with a rate of only 0.7% unemployment.8) has resulted in a labour shortage to be filled by migrants. Thailand has approximately 3.1 million migrant workers9, some of which are vulnerable to exploitation. Victims of modern slavery, from both within and outside Thailand have been identified in various industries, including the sex industry, and fishing, construction and agricultural industries, low-end garment production, domestic work and street begging.10
Notable aspects of the problem
Thailand is one of the world’s leading seafood suppliers producing 4.2 million tonnes of seafood per year, 90% of which is exported.11 The industry has seen an explosive growth in recent years due to increased demand from the international market (mainly Europe and the U.S.) which has led to an increased need for, and subsequent use of cheap migrant labour.12 It is estimated that approximately 5-6% of migrant workers, or roughly 200,000 migrants are working within the Thai fishing industry.13 There are, however, limitations in the regulation of the industry due to insufficient resources and legislative framework, and inadequate delineation of territorial jurisdictions; as a result the industry has been implicated in the abuse of workers, particularly forced labour and trafficking.14
Many fishers find themselves in situations of debt bondage15 due to costs occurred during transfer and placement with employers. Given that boats are often in the deep sea for lengthy periods of time, the ability to escape poor working conditions is significantly harder.16 Reports suggest that in addition to extensive working hours, poor and often withheld pay,17 there is a high level of violence experienced by migrant workers on fishing vessels.18 Of 49 Cambodian fishers surveyed by UNIAP SIREN, 59% had witnessed a murder by the boat captain.19
Child exploitation and modern slavery is a significant problem, with high numbers of children exploited both within and outside Thai borders. Reports suggest that children from minority groups, including migrants, stateless persons – such as some of Thailand’s ethnic minorities who are denied citizenship20 - and hill tribes from both northern and southern Thailand are particularly vulnerable.21 While the Special Rapporteur of Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, recognised that there had been a reduction in the number of child sexual exploitation cases among Thai children, it is a still a significant risk for children from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar who are trafficked into Thailand.22 Of known cases, many of these children are enslaved for sexual exploitation, including child prostitution and pornography. Thai girls, often aged between 12 and 16 years from the hill tribes of northern Thailand are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation under ‘prison-like’ conditions.23 The majority of these known victims, however, come from outside Thailand, with the highest number coming from Myanmar.
A high level of corruption within the Thai law enforcement personnel has meant that human trafficking processes go unchecked, and modern slavery prevails. Members of the police force protect establishments such as commercial sex venues, factories, and seafood processing venues from raids and inspections. Police have also been found to conspire with traffickers, harbour, transport, and sell victims directly, interfere with investigations, extort money at the border, and engage in sexual activities with trafficked women or children.24
In Samut Sakhon, for example, reports exist of both factories and illegal migrant workers paying the police a form of protection money to avoid being arrested.25
2. What is the government doing about it?
The Royal Thai Government has ratified some of the key international treaties relating to modern slavery, including the Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour and other relevant ILO Conventions.26 Thailand is signatory to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol, but has not yet ratified it, preferring to institute domestic measures aimed at the prevention and elimination of human trafficking prior to its ratification. In 2000 the government signed the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.27
In 2008, following a lengthy process of consultation and review, the government brought into force the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act B.E. 2551 (2008), which comprehensively criminalises all forms of modern slavery, and ensure that heavier penalties for criminals, compensation for victims, and shelter and care are available during the legal process, including for undocumented foreign victims.28
Within the Royal Thai Government, the responsibility to coordinate government actions to combat human trafficking falls within the remit of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS). Other actors involved within the Government are the Ministry of Labour, the Royal Thai Police, the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the Attorney-General, and the Thai COMMIT (Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking) Task Force.29
Since 2004 the Thai COMMIT taskforce, with UNIAP as Secretariat, has made efforts to alleviate the problem of modern slavery in Thailand. Thailand, along with Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding against human trafficking, which commits each government to respond to human trafficking on a manner that meets international standards. Given the high level of migration throughout this region, the MOU also engages inter-agency activity, and promotes coordination between governments and NGOs.30
The Royal Thai Government has made a significant effort to consult and coordinate with regional partners. Thailand is a founding member of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)31 and participates in the Bali Process forum – an inter-governmental and inter-agency mechanism aiming to raise regional awareness with regards to people smuggling and human trafficking.32
There has also been efforts to increase support for victims. There is a government-run hotline (1300) for all issues of social welfare, where victims can access assistance, however, low numbers of migrants make use of this facility as the operators predominately only speak Thai.33 There is a number of government and NGO shelters for victims of trafficking, as well as a repatriation programme to assist victims to return home.34 In 2012, according to the MSDHS, 271 victims were provided with assistance at government shelters, which is a decrease in numbers from previous years.35 While shelters provide important support options for victims, concerns have been raised about the practices of ‘routine-detention’ of victims under the premise of supporting and protecting victims.36
Notable aspects of the response
The Royal Thai Government was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List by the U.S Department of State, and avoided being downgraded to Tier 3 as a result of the government plan to combat human trafficking. The plan, if implemented, would meet the requirements of the Department of State by ‘making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking’.37 The Ministry for Labour has set up a committee, including contributions from fishing trawler operators to tackle issues of human trafficking in an effort to remove Thailand from the US State Department TIP report’s watch list.38 Following the development of the National Action Plan, the Thai Government met with non-government agencies to discuss ways to enhance cooperation between the relevant actors in the field of anti-human trafficking, and served to display the government’s commitment to tackling the issue. Results of the implementation of this plan remain to be assessed.39
Despite the government encouraging migrant workers to be registered, more than one million migrant workers are not registered, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and slavery. In 2006, Thailand began a process that requires low-skilled migrants to have their nationality verified by their country of origin before they are eligible to obtain a work permit. However, there are significant operational problems causing delay in registration. Migrant workers who are registered face limitations on their movements as they are not allowed to leave the area where they have registered.40
Given the high number of migrant workers entering Thailand, the protection of these workers, both registered and unregistered, is central to addressing the issue of slavery and related exploitation in Thailand. In 2007, Thailand signed the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, and became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2010.41 Irregular migration is criminalised in domestic law and illegal migrants are subject to high penalties and deportation. Coupled with inadequate screening and identification of victims within these groups, means that those who are enslaved are also vulnerable to arrest and deportation. A UNIAP Sentinel Surveillance report, for example, gives a prevalence estimate of over 20,000 Cambodian victims mis-identified within a population of around 90,000 Cambodians arrested and deported under the immigration law.42 This fact is also often manipulated by unscrupulous employers to keep control of their workers by threatening to report them. Many workers in conditions of forced labour and severe exploitation fear being deported more than continuing to work in the inhumane conditions they face.43
3. What needs to happen?
- Ratify the 2000 UN TIP Protocol, the International Convention on Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers and the 2007 ILO Work in Fishing Convention (No 188).
- Ensure government data is collected and shared so anti-trafficking efforts can be measured and assessed.
- Increase the number of labour inspectors and investigate claims of corruption.
- Support existing hotlines that provide multi-lingual support to victims.
- Extend training beyond law enforcement to immigration officials, labour inspectors, as well as front-line professionals in recognising and responding appropriately to the signs of human trafficking and slavery.
- Take proactive measures to investigate and prosecute government officials suspected of trafficking-related corruption and complicity in trafficking offenses.
- Adopt a victim-centred approach to identifying, and assisting illegal migrant workers.
- Provide government legal representation for minority groups in Thailand and stateless persons, ensuring that their rights are preserved and that they become less vulnerable to trafficking.