Court acquits two Thais accused of human trafficking

A provincial court in southern Thailand has dismissed charges of human trafficking filed by Cambodian workers against a Thai fishing boat captain and a fish market owner.    

On 22 February 2017, the Provincial Court of Ranong read the verdict in a case filed by Ranong public prosecutors against Banjob Kaenkaew, a fishing boat captain, and Somchai Jettanapornsamran, owner of a fish market based in Samut Sakhon.

Four Cambodian migrant workers with assistance from the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) accused the two of trafficking at least three Cambodians and forcing them to do hard labour on a fishing boat.

The two were indicted under Article 4 of the 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.

According to the workers, they were tricked into working on the fishing boats and forced to work 22 hours per day continuously for 13 months with only two meals each day. They also alleged that they were not paid properly in accordance with Thai labour law.   

The court, however, dismissed the charges against the suspects, citing the lack of evidence to back up the accusations of the migrant workers.

The judges stated that the court is convinced that the reason the victims reported the case against the suspects was simply to demand overdue wages and overtime pay, adding that whether the workers had been paid properly or not, the matter has to be investigated further under the labour law.

Phattranit Yaodam, HRDF advisor, pointed out that the court’s verdict could have implications for interpretations of Article 4 of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.

It could particularly affect the interpretation in the context of forced labour in fisheries and working conditions which are subject to restrictions and deprivation of liberty, Phattranit explained.

She added that the ruling is not compatible with the 1930 Forced Labour Convention of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which stipulates that the act of deception, deprivation of liberty, improper payment of wages and protracted duration of work constitute an act of forced labour.  

In recent years, the harsh labour practices and poor living and working conditions of migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar in the fishing and seafood industry in Thailand have received international attention and prompted demands for systemic reform.

Since the European Union (EU) issued its “yellow card” in April 2015 threatening a ban on seafood imports from Thailand due to its inadequate legal framework for fighting unlawful fishing and poor labour practices, the Thai government has implemented measures to crack down on trafficking and arrested more than 100 people.

Nonetheless, many activists claim that not enough has been done. “Our investigations at sea and across the Thai seafood sector continue to find extensive violence, corruption and abuse,” the Guardian quoted as saying Steve Trent, Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an NGO that has been working with the Thai government on the issue.

“Slaves are still on the boats; nationals of neighbouring states are still trafficked in to provide cheap or free labour, and Thai fishing vessels continue to fish illegally and unsustainably, thereby reinforcing the economic incentives to use bonded, forced and slave labour to keep the costs down,” Trent added.

A migrant worker on Thai fishing boat (Photo by Mahmud Rahman)