By Joshua Simonidis
The U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report dropped Thailand to Tier 3 status—the lowest level—for its failure to comply with minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Thailand had received waivers in both 2012 and 2013 to keep it from being automatically downgraded from the Tier 2 Watch List after it submitted a written plan to improve its compliance, but that plan was never implemented.
The 2014 TIP report cited numerous violations, including the smuggling of would-be asylum seekers into Thailand by corrupt officials, the sale of both Thais and foreigners into forced labor, and extensive sex trafficking. A large portion of the report was focused on the prevalence of forced labor in Thailand’s fishing industry. Workers in Thailand’s fishing industry often work up to 18-20 hours a day and are severely underpaid. These poor conditions combined with the size of the industry (Thailand is the world’s third largest seafood exporter) have created incentives for trafficking to meet the demand for cheap labor.
With the 2015 TIP report due this summer, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on January 6 called on his government to quickly implement measures to combat human trafficking before a March 31 deadline. To its credit, the Thai government has begun to respond. It quickly instituted a series of new policies to protect those vulnerable to being trafficked. These measures include mandating labor contracts, encouraging foreign worker registration, increasing the minimum working ages for various sectors, calling for immediate prosecution of those involved with trafficking, and creating a committee specifically tasked with combatting human trafficking.
In a January 13 statement, the International Labor Organization (ILO) called the Thai government new policies “a step in the right direction.” But what happens after March?
Will the Thai government continue this progress if it earns an upgrade to Tier 2 in the 2015 TIP report?
Thailand knows that it is in its best interest to improve its position in the report. Tier 3 countries may receive restrictions on bilateral assistance, including suspending or pulling non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance, or withdrawing funding for government employees’ participation in educational and cultural exchange programs Being a recognized haven for human trafficking is bad for business—it could curtail investment and loans from governments and private firms that do not want to be associated with such a negative human rights record. Conversely, many of Thailand’s industries, especially fishing, have come to rely on trafficked labor and with doubts lingering about Thailand’s economy in the coming year, incentives for trafficking may only increase.
The U.S. government should work to help ensure Thailand turns the corner. This could be achieved through cooperation in capacity-building, including training Thai personnel to identify and work with victims. The United States should also encourage Thailand to work with organizations like the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the ILO to adopt and verify best practices to combat trafficking as prescribed by both.
There are few places where the U.S. government currently agrees with Thailand’s military junta, especially in light of the recent revelation that elections to return Thailand to civilian rule will be delayed until at least 2016, but trafficking is one such area of mutual concern. Working to end human trafficking through better policies would have real impact that could spread to Thailand’s labor system as a whole.