The U.S. Department of State upgraded Thailand’s ranking from the Tier 2 watch list to “Tier 2,” the second-highest ranking, in its 2018 trafficking in persons report released on 28 June.
Thailand has come under fire in recent years for its ties to human trafficking, particularly in the seafood industry. A Pulitzer Prize-winning story by the Associated Press titled “Seafood from Slaves” drew international attention to the issue, and the U.S. Department of State had ranked the country as “Tier 3,” the worst ranking possible, in 2014 and 2015.
The new report credited the Thai government for its efforts to reduce trafficking through increased prosecution of offenders and efforts to protect victims.
“The Government of Thailand does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” states the report. “The government demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore Thailand was upgraded to Tier 2.”
Also cited in the report were Thailand’s efforts to increase prevention of human trafficking. The Thai government has increased funding for migrant labor management and anti-trafficking efforts to THB 3.6 billion (USD 108.5 million, EUR 93.6 million), up from THB 3.2 billion (USD 96.5 million, EUR 83.2 million) in 2017.
The Thai government has also increased public awareness through media campaigns on radio, billboards, handouts, and social media.
While the report praised Thailand on certain fronts, it also criticized other aspects of the country’s efforts to prevent human trafficking. Corruption within the government was cited as a key barrier to improving the country’s standing.
“Corruption continues to undermine anti-trafficking efforts. Some government officials are directly complicit in trafficking crimes, including through accepting bribes or loans from business owners and brothels where victims are exploited,” the report said. “Credible reports indicate some corrupt officials protect brothels and other commercial sex venues from raids and inspections and collude with traffickers.”
Thai officials have praised the upgrade, and credited the government’s work on the issue.
Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told the Associated Press that the upgrade “reflects the determination and sincere intentions of the Thai government and our continued hard-work to tackle the issue of human trafficking."
However, the increased ranking has raised some alarm among certain international anti-trafficking advocates, including U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The State Department missed yet another opportunity to restore the Trafficking in Persons Report to what it once was - the gold standard for unbiased, accurate reporting on countries’ efforts to end the scourge of human trafficking,” Menendez said in a statement following the release of the report. “While I applaud some of the Department’s decisions in this report, including the long overdue downgrade of Malaysia, it still chose to go easy on many countries that clearly do not meet the legal standards.”
The International Labor Rights Forum also criticized the decision to upgrade Thailand’s rank on the trafficking report. The organization cited the country’s multiple court cases brought against individuals exposing labor abuse and trafficking.
Recently, the government ordered Andy Hall, a U.K.-based labor- and human-rights activist, to pay a THB 10 million fine (USD 300,000, EUR 260,000) due to a report he released exposing the rights violations at National Fruit Co Ltd. The case cites his calling attention to the issues as criminal and civil defamation.
The ILRF also pointed out that many workers who manage to free themselves from forced labor often face similar defamation cases.
“Rather than receiving compensation after their escape from forced labor, the workers face criminal defamation charges from the owners, and could be fined or imprisoned for speaking about their experiences,” wrote the ILRF.
The ILRF did praise the government’s efforts, and the conviction of high-profile government officials in trafficking cases, but added that upgraded the ranking so quickly may lead Thailand to relax its efforts.
"We acknowledge Thailand has made some progress, but this upgrade comes too soon, potentially releasing the pressure on the Thai government at a time when we are still waiting for them to take concrete actions to protect migrant workers," said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, in a release. "The Royal Thai Government has said they will make the legal reforms necessary, but currently the migrant workers who power Thai export production do not have the legal right to organize and bargain collectively for better working conditions, which makes them afraid to speak out. It’s impossible to stop human trafficking in such a context.”