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by Prachi Mehrotra

The first weeks of 2017 have seen an outpouring of democratic movements across the world. Massive crowds of people around the world are organizing, protesting, petitioning, and marching every day. These methods of expression and resistance aren’t novel, but advancements in technology and the increasing interconnectedness of the world are giving protesters a new voice.

At the center of these populist demands are equal rights, and the labor trafficking industry is not immune to these demands. While we’d like to say that slavery was abolished years ago, modern slavery does in fact still exist. We may not see it so obviously around us, but human trafficking is pervasive around the world, in every industry.

Thailand’s fishing industry, the world’s third largest seafood exporter, is one such place where this problem persists. In recent years, Thailand’s fishing industry has been brought under frequent fire for labor trafficking and human rights abuses. Currently, Thailand stands at a Tier 2 status in the US State Department’s annual trafficking in persons (TIP) report. Last year, the EU even threatened a complete ban on seafood imports from Thailand unless they improved their labor practices.

More and more, the international community is confronting modern day slavery.  Not only individuals, but also private sector and international organizations are speaking out against inhumane labor practices. In 2015, upon the amendments to the Fisheries Act and Anti-Human Trafficking Act in Thailand, the Board of Trade lead key private sector players in a collective announcement identifying several ways the private sector can provide support. The announcement commits to working against human trafficking and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Despite this commitment, a culture of abuse and limited rights remain the norm. Democratic outlets, however, are increasingly providing new voices to the victims.

On January 30th, 2,243 migrant workers from Myanmar submitted a petition for higher wages and better working conditions to Sea Value Group, one of the parties supporting the announcement, according to the Migrant Workers Rights Network. A petition of this size is newsworthy.

Migrant worker rights differ drastically from Thai nationals’ rights. Although government decree states that all migrant workers are “entitled to equal protection,” it is currently illegal for migrant workers to form trade unions and engage in other galvanizing acts critical to improving their working conditions.

Absent workers voices, efforts to address trafficking will remain flat. The Environmental Justice Foundation suggests that while the Thai government seems to be enforcing their anti-trafficking laws and decreasing the prevalence of slavery in the country, the military junta is only targeting lower-level human traffickers. This is in accordance with the results of Greenpeace’s December 2016 Turn the Tide report which indicated that human rights abuses remain a major issue in the Thai fishing industry.

Still, positive shifts are taking place as the Myanmar migrant workers’ petition comes not too long after the workers won concessions on reducing recruiter fees. Thai Union, a large seafood producer in Thailand, has even implemented a “zero recruitment fees” policy, demonstrating the important role the private sector plays in combating labor trafficking.

The 2016 U.S. TIP Report recommends that Thailand should “improve migrant workers’ rights, legal status, and labor migration policies to minimize the risk of trafficking.” At the midpoint of its annual status as a Tier 2 country, Thailand must leverage and engage its private sector to grant migrant workers better working conditions and its public sector to grant migrant workers equal rights and the ability to unionize. Absent these positive developments, Thailand’s 2016 upgrade to Tier 2 status should be reevaluated in future reports.

Concordia’s Campaign Against Labor Trafficking works to bring together the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to end trafficking in Thailand’s seafood industry. To learn more about the Campaign or how to get involved, please contact Hanne Dalmut at hdalmut@concordia.net.