The authorities must do more to stop human trafficking and the mistreatment of labourers in fishing and other low-paid industries
Thailand is the regional hub for human trafficking. It is a source and transit venue because of its central location in continental Southeast Asia and because it is surrounded by neighbouring countries with a lower level of economic development. For decades, migrant workers from these countries have risked their lives to get to Thailand in search of better living conditions and wages. However, of late, the human trafficking problem in this part of the world has changed. We are now seeing forced labour being smuggled in from countries as far away as Fiji and Uzbekistan.
The worst aspects of modern human trafficking can be found in the Thai fishing fleet, where conditions can easily be described as modern slavery. Thai trawler-owners are generally inhumane and should be put on trial for the illegal practices they regularly get away with.
The US State Department recently issued a report on the state of global human trafficking, and it still lists Thailand in the tier two category along with many other countries in the region including Afghanistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and China. The category also includes Argentina, Zambia and Russia.
But this year's report also gave a fair assessment of Thailand's effort in preventing human trafficking and protecting migrant workers. The report detailed the country's legislation and the performance of governmental offices. Two of the biggest problems remain issues related to corruption and weak law enforcement. As such, it is not surprising that those behind human smuggling from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, and the transit of human cargoes to foreign destinations near and far, continue to get away with their crimes over and over again. They must be punished and jailed.
The Abhisit government has been trying hard to cope with this issue as part of its overall stated policy of respect for human rights and human dignity. But somehow the concerned authorities are not cooperating. For instance, the inhumane treatment of Burmese and Cambodian workers employed in the Thai fishing industry, as detailed by the US report, should be thoroughly investigated by Thai authorities. These are serious crimes that tarnish Thailand's image. Quite often we hear stories of how workers on fishing vessels are thrown into the sea or left to die of hunger locked inside trawlers, where nobody can find them. Thai trawler operators who engage in such heinous treatment of foreign migrant labourers must be prosecuted without leniency because they have knowingly killed many helpless workers. Some of these owners are well-known personalities.
It is time that Thailand properly registered foreign workers, especially from neighbouring countries, in order to prevent them being exploited by ruthless employers. Past registration schemes have been full of errors because of official procedures that have led to corruption and collusion among prospective employers and officials. The government has to be mindful of this malpractice because in the future the number of migrant labourers in Thailand is bound to increase dramatically, especially with the ongoing process of Asean economic integration.
Thailand must learn the lessons from the past that any inhumane treatment of migrant labourers will eventually affect Thai society as a whole. In the 1990s we mistreated thousands of refugees who, as a result have never shown any appreciation for Thailand's other more humanitarian face. The same sentiment will prevail among itinerant labourers who work here like slaves for the benefit of the wider Thai economy.