Thailand is reporting progress in efforts to curb human trafficking and abusive labor practices for migrant workers. The government is taking steps, including tougher regulations and new anti-trafficking measures, after coming under criticism from rights groups and the United States.
In 2014 the United States lowered Thailand’s rating in its Trafficking in Person’s (TIP) report in an assessment that the country showed few signs of improving its record on human tracking and illegal labor.
In a wide range of Thai industries, from fishing vessels, factories, and farms, rights groups have complained that many foreign workers are exploited, paid very little, and expected to work long hours under threats of violence.
The U.S. downgrade placed Thailand on the lowest ranking, Tier 3, leaving the country open to non-trade and non-humanitarian sanctions, as well as the withholding of assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank.
Thailand has a migrant worker population estimated at up to three million people, mostly undocumented workers from Burma, as well as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The U.S. report said victims of human trafficking often subject to forced labor and the sex trade also included people from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, India and Fiji.
Last year Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called for the creation of special committees to oversee the creation of new policies to crack down on trafficking and improve worker rights in a range of industries.
This week, the Thai Foreign Ministry released an interim report on the government’s tougher legislation and new anti-trafficking measures.
Thai Deputy Foreign Minister, Don Pramudwinai, told a news conference he believed the initiatives marked progress in addressing the issues of human trafficking.
“The past six months there were tangible results ..where there’s amendments of the law and the issues pertaining to the victims, the enforcement as well - all these [are] genuine measures, which could be implemented in a very effective manner,” he said.
Measures include tougher regulations to protect labor in the fishing industry, including raising the minimum wage for workers to 18 years and ensuring each has a labor contract. In the agriculture sector the age has been increased to 15.
The government says it reached out to civil society and non-government organizations to implement and monitor the policies.
In Thailand’s southern province of Phang Na, Htoo Chit, a Myanmar rights worker and head of a foundation campaigning for migrant labor rights, said the organization was working with the government on a pilot project on the fishing industry.
But Htoo Chit said that although the policy marks an improvement from previous administrations, including registration of currently undocumented labor, more needed to be done.
“They are doing [more]. I mean when compared with the previous government. But it is not diligent enough yet. For example they try to provide this legal status for the migrants in general... but most of the trafficking victims are undocumented so they also have to monitor [the vessels] at sea,” he said.
Under new rules the government requires all seagoing vessels to be registered with installation of vessel monitoring systems (VMS) on all boats by February.
The government says it has now registered up to 1.6 million previously undocumented migrant workers in Thailand.
Kanchana Patachoke, a deputy director general within the Thai Foreign Ministry, sayid Thailand was looking to improve its standing by acceding to international protocols on human trafficking.
“Thailand is also with the cooperation of international organizations and the United Nations. Thailand’s obligations under UNTOC - Transnational Organized Crime Convention. Thailand is also party to the protocol on human trafficking or trafficking of migrants and we’re considering acceding to the protocol on smuggling of migrants as well,” she said.
Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told VOA the goal remained to eradicate forced labor and human trafficking from Thailand.
“We’re looking at the target - the target is to clean as best as possible all the problems which have been hindering our society for so long in dealing with the people, in particular the laborers and our ladies. All those should be uplifted. But of course in doing so we are hopeful our actions will be taken into account in their consideration in the TIP report,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division, said that while the policies were welcomed, more needed to be done on enforcement, especially for the most vulnerable populations such as Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who are trafficking victims in Thailand.
“We’ve seen time and time again promises made, commitments promulgated, promises to change laws to change regulations but nothing gets done about impunity. The impunity to continue to traffic people, what’s happening to the Rohingya, to migrants forced on to fishing boats raises serious suspicions that this is once again the Thai Government’s effort to talk themselves out of a problem,” he said.
The Thai Government said the efforts to curb human trafficking were being given a top priority. A report summary of the government’s policies is to be forwarded to the U.S. State Department later this month.