Thailand gets US TIP downgrade over forced labour of migrant workers

On 1 July, the US Department of State released the 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report downgrading Thailand to the Tier 2 Watch List after finding fault with government efforts to address forced labour and trafficking issues particularly in the fishing, seafood and garment sectors.

Photograph: Wanna Tamthong

This downgrade moves Thailand closer to Tier 3, the lowest standard, where governments are regarded as not fully complying with the minimum standards and not making significant efforts in combating forced labour and human trafficking in accordance with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Tier 3 status has potential diplomatic and economic repercussions on a human rights dimension.

Thailand has been ranked Tier 2 for the past three years. According to a press release from the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, the 2021 TIP Report highlights critical issues that led to this year’s downgrade: the Thai government initiated significantly fewer trafficking investigations, prosecuted fewer suspects, and convicted fewer traffickers in 2020 than in the previous year.

  • Thai authorities have never reported identifying a victim of labor trafficking as a result of fishing vessel inspections conducted at ports.
  • Corruption and official complicity continued to impede anti-trafficking efforts.
  • Labor laws prevented migrant workers from forming labor unions which may have further contributed to exploitation. 
  • Thailand’s criminal defamation laws continued to allow companies to pursue criminal charges against potential victims and advocates, including through strategic lawsuits against public participation, which resulted in advocates facing years of legal harassment.
  • Workers in the seafood processing and fishing sectors increasingly faced forced overtime as a result of increasing demand for shelf-stable seafood during the pandemic, as well as unsafe working conditions. Vessel owners, brokers, and senior vessel crew subject Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian men and boys to forced labor on Thai and foreign-owned fishing boats.

Source: Press Release, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum

In response to the downgrade, Jennifer Rosenbaum, Executive Director of Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), comments in the press release:

“Thailand’s downgraded status in the 2021 TIP Report reflects well documented and concerning trends. This downgraded status is consistent with the U.S. government’s withdrawal of trade preferences based on extreme workers’ rights exploitation particularly in the fishing sector and in relation to migrant workers. We urge the Thai government to take concrete steps to promote freedom of association including ratification of ILO conventions 87 and 98 as a strong antidote to forced labor and labor trafficking concerns. Freedom of association protections must also be applied in a nondiscriminatory way without regard to migration status.”

In the same press release, Adisorn Kaerdmongol, Coordinator of the Migrant Working Group (MWG), comments:

“COVID-19 has exposed underlying weaknesses of Thailand’s anti-trafficking infrastructure, particularly the way it fails to see the interlinkage between human trafficking and regularization of migrant workers. Instead of grasping how potential trafficking victims like migrant workers would be even more vulnerable in the face of the pandemic, the government instead compounded the workers’ vulnerabilities by stepping up their operation to crack down on undocumented workers and workers with invalid documents to show off their efforts to contain COVID-19. Arrested workers were deported without screening regardless of whether they might have been under forced labor conditions at a time when COVID-19 intensified economic distress that in turn tended to worsen human rights and labor rights abuses.”

On 2 July, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement responding to the report, expressing disappointment that the TIP Report “unilaterally makes an evaluation from the U.S.’ very own view and by no means represents any international standard.”

The statement catalogues the Kingdom’s attempts to combat human trafficking as part of the national agenda:

“More than 90 percent of the submitted cases were adjudicated by the Court within one year while more than 67 percent of offenders were handed down severe sentences. … Complicit officials were also punished and online human trafficking, a rising form of trafficking … was cracked down [sic]; … Victim-centred and trauma-informed care approaches continue to be undertaken to protect victims of human trafficking while partnership with the civil society orgnizations [sic] in supporting victims with shelters and services were encouraged and strengthened; … Migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos PDR and Myanmar were granted extended period [sic] of stay in Thailand until 31 March 2022 as a part of the Covid-19 pandemic measures. 240,572 migrant workers who registered under this provision had received protection and welfares [sic] in accordance with relevant laws and regulations; thus minimising their risks of falling prey to human traffickers.

“The Royal Thai Government remains resolute to advancing their efforts in prevention and suppression of human trafficking to safeguard human dignity in line with the human rights and humanitarian principles which Thailand has long cherished and upheld,” states the MoFA.

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