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by Anna Merzi

For the second year in a row, Thailand is ranked in the recently released U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report as a Tier 2 Watch List categorized country. Tier 2 Watch List ranks governments that “do not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.” As the second-lowest ranking on the list, this status signals a strong diplomatic message to the Royal Government of Thailand that more needs to be done, and that maintaining this rank demonstrates the government’s glaring lack of progress in implementing the country’s anti-trafficking laws over the past year.

The report notes that the Thai government has not prosecuted trafficking crimes as aggressively as the previous year’s reporting period. While the government has enacted more robust-sounding laws and altered interpretations of trafficking intended to regulate how companies hire migrant workers, there is a key disconnect between the language in these laws and their actual implementation, as evidenced both by process hurdles and actual outcomes.

Members of the international community have been valuable watchdogs in holding the Thai government accountable for its inaction. Nongovernmental organizations that have monitored the fishing industry brought attention to failures within the Thai government’s screening process, which is intended to identify victims on-site. Groups noted that “during the reporting period, interviews were conducted in front of ship captains, or ship captains acted as interpreters, which hindered workers from speaking freely and may have led to unidentified trafficking victims” (389). This report came shortly after Thailand enacted a policy allowing companies to hire foreign nationals to conduct labor inspections.

Despite their important role, bureaucratic red tape and regulations clamping down on migrant rights and association capabilities constrain the NGO community in Thailand. This past year, famed human rights defender Andy Hall was held in contempt of the Government for his watchdog role in the Natural Fruit Company labor abuse scandal uncovered by Finnwatch, which he was a researcher for at the time. The British national’s passport was held and he was convicted of criminal defamation with a deferred sentence of three years in prison. (Hall is currently in the UK challenging the charges.) The glaring disconnect between the Government’s pledge to eliminate trafficking and forced labor from its country, and its persecution of the actors leading the charge, could be given more credence in the report and Thailand’s steady ranking.

In other areas, the Thai government has touted stricter anti-trafficking laws but failed to adjust certain labor laws that directly contribute to the prevalence of forced labor in the country. NGOs and international organizations noted that there are “critical gaps in Thailand’s labor laws preventing migrant workers from forming labor unions” as well as limited enforcement of Thailand’s minimum wage in sectors with high rates of migrant workers (391).

This past year, the Thai government only reported 83 investigations and 62 prosecutions of suspected forced labor. These numbers are grimly low considering the well-known prevalence of forced labor throughout the country, particularly in the seafood industry. The result of this inaction is continual and in gross violations of anti-trafficking laws and human rights, particularly in the Thai fishing industry.

It appears that Thailand’s “significant efforts” to comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards come more in the form of language than in action, and their complacency in the face of pervasive forced labor gives great reason to reevaluate their Tier 2 Watch List status. In order to hold the Thai government fully accountable for its failure to act, and in recognizing the key role that independent organizations have played in identifying these failures, the TIP Report rankings should be determined independent of any political influence. To award language that comes without action and to consider any political motivations as a part of the TIP Report rankings greatly undermines its ability to hold governments accountable for trafficking violations.

The TIP Report remains a historically influential tool in bilateral relations and the global anti-slavery movement. While many factors feed into the final rankings, and the report is only one of the State Department’s diplomatic tools capable of delivering a message, significant and sustainable progress must be made with regards to Thai labor rights in order to warrant a third year on the “Watch List”. Otherwise, watching is all the global community will continue to do.

The issue of labor trafficking in Thailand’s fishing industry and the formation of sustainable partnerships towards a solution will be addressed alongside key industry leaders at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit held in New York on September 18-19, as a part of Concordia’s Campaign Against Labor Trafficking.