Praise and disappointment for Thailand downgrade

By

Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
June 23, 2014

Environmental activists are praising the U.S. State Department’s downgrading of Thailand to Tier 3 in its annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report, while stakeholders in Thailand said they were “disappointed” with the ruling.

The department unveiled the 2014 TIP report on 20 June. The department has listed Thailand as “Tier 2 Watch” for the past four years. The department was required to upgrade Thailand to Tier 2 or downgrade it to Tier 3, based on how much progress the department felt Thailand had made in controlling human trafficking.

The report indicates a large number of trafficked workers are immigrants from other countries. The department estimated that there are 2-3 million undocumented immigrant workers in Thailand, most coming from Myanmar.

The report indicates “a significant portion” of those workers are forced into work in the fishing industry, confirming allegations by several NGOs and media reports.

“Some men remain at sea for up to several years, are paid very little, are expected to work 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week, or are threatened and physically beaten,” the TIP report said.

In explanation for the downgrade, the TIP report declared Thailand was “deemed not to be making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards and is placed on Tier 3.”

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) is one of the NGOs that has investigated reports of trafficking in Thailand. The group issued a statement saying it “welcomes” the State Department downgrade.

“I see it as a very valuable step,” EJF Executive Director Steve Trent told SeafoodSource. “I think it was a bold move.”

Trent said his group has only been studying the issue in depth for the past two years, but already has found disturbing evidence of violence and even murder on board Thai fishing vessels.

“We are talking real slavery,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Human rights organization Internatioanl Labor Rights Forum also spoke out in praise of the State Department.

“Today’s decision should be a clear message to the Thai Government that it needs to get serious about its significant trafficking problem,” said Abby Mills, the forum’s campaigns director. “For far too long, the Thai Government has turned a blind eye to egregious exploitation of migrant workers to provide cheap labor for its export industries. They must realize that exploitation has a price.”

Thailand is the third largest exporter of seafood in the world, and the United States is its Number One destination for seafood exports. The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) counts a number of seafood buyers and importers who source from Thailand among its members.

In a statement, NFI described the human trafficking reports as “abhorrent,” and called for stricter enforcement and prosecution of offenders by the Thai government. NFI President John Connelly told SeafoodSource that NFI members are also doing their part, by carefully examining their own supply chains and the supply chains of the companies they source seafood from in Thailand.

“We’re confident that companies that NFI members deal with are doing the right thing,” he said.

Connelly urged NFI members who source from Thai companies to remain vigilant, however.

“This is not an area where there’s a lot of tolerance, and there shouldn’t be a lot of tolerance,” he said.

In its criticism of the Thai government, the TIP report noted Thailand has made progress, saying “The Government of Thailand improved its anti-trafficking data collection,” but cited “corruption at all levels” as a significant obstacle to any real change.

“(Thai officials) systematically failed to investigate, prosecute and convict ship owners and captains for extracting forced labor from migrant workers, or officials who may be complicit in these crimes.”

In response to the TIP report, the Thai government issued a statement describing the progress it has made in controlling the problem.

"We are obviously disappointed and respectfully disagree with the State Department's decision,” Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Thailand’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “While the latest TIP report did not recognize our vigorous, government-wide efforts that yielded unprecedented progress and concrete results, Thailand remains committed to combating human trafficking. It is a national priority. Human trafficking is anathema to our nation's core values."

The statement noted that in 2013, the number of investigations into trafficking doubled compared to 2012. In the same time period, five times as many defendants were prosecuted, and four times as many people were convicted and punished compared to 2012. The Thai Royal Navy also conducts unannounced boarding and inspection of fishing vessels, and has forged agreements with neighboring nations to help protect migrant workers.

"There is acute awareness throughout Thailand of the need to better identify and help victims of trafficking, and there is strong commitment from the nation’s leadership and all Ministries working together as a team,” said Songsak Saichuea, director general of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Evidence of that commitment and the undeniable progress on combating trafficking in Thailand was submitted this year to the U. S. State Department."

Thai Union Frozen Group (TUF) is one of the largest seafood companies in Thailand, distributing seafood worldwide, including to the United States. Thiraphong Chansiri, president and CEO of TUF, said in a statement that he and his company were “disappointed” with the downgrade, but said he and TUF would work even harder to eliminate trafficking from his country’s fishing industry. TUF, Chansiri said, has “made it very clear to our suppliers” that they will not source any raw material from anyone, and would sever ties with any supplier “with no compromise” if trafficking was found.

Chansiri also noted a partnership begun in 2013 with Thai government officials and various Thai industry groups to establish a good labor practices program and other positive efforts to combat the problem.

“Thai Union Group is committed to full compliance with our code of conduct, good labor practices and every labor agreement we have signed — any less would be moving backwards,” Chansiri said. “We are absolutely determined to move forward sustainably as one of the world’s seafood leaders and as an exemplary responsible global corporate citizen.”

Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods, a TUF subsidiary, also issued a statement pledging a commitment to preventing human trafficking.

“The problems in Thailand are complex and stem from a myriad of factors,” said Bryan Rosenberg, president and CEO of Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods. “We as an industry and throughout the supply chain must work together to improve traceability and enforcement of laws and social standards designed to protect workers and ensure operators and consumers that products they purchase are responsibly sourced.”

While the State Department cannot issue sanctions to Thailand — that responsibility falls to the President — the Tier 3 designation does open up the possibility, and many industry experts agree that may be the next step. Despite this, NFI’s Connelly said he doesn’t think this will scare Thai companies away from dealing with the United States.

“We don’t think that Thai companies are going to run from the U.S. because of this,” he said. “A vast majority are doing the right thing.”

Trent said the EJF is not seeking blanket sanctions, or any other “blunt force” action, saying, “We’re not calling for (sanctions) at this moment, no.” He said sanctions should only happen if Thailand doesn’t take stronger action. Even then, he said, it would be important for trade sanctions to target companies in Thailand that are connected to trafficking. A broad, sweeping ban would punish companies that are doing the right thing, Trent said, and neither he nor NFI wants that.

“I passionately believe in working with businesses,” he said. “I’m not interested in putting people out of work."

Connelly agreed with Trent, saying he encourages NFI members to only cut off suppliers they know are engaged in such practices.

“Give us a sharply-focused allegation and NFI members will go in and investigate, and if they find it to be true, they’ll take action,” he said.

Keep checking SeafoodSource for all the latest news on the Thailand human trafficking issue

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