Rights defenders say exploitation of workers becoming more sophisticated; new law needed
WORKERS in Thailand remain vulnerable to becoming victims of forced labour, labour rights activists said yesterday, as they urged authorities to pass the Prevention and Eradication of Forced Labour Bill to provide more inclusive protection for ther workforce.
While migrant workers in fisheries and agricultural sectors are the most vulnerable to forced labour, freelance workers and employees of state enterprises also face work conditions without proper payment, rest periods or rights protection.
The illegal working conditions endured by many were revealed at a press conference by the Migrant Working Group and IJM Foundation yesterday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
The labour rights defenders called on the government to ensure that the bill is pushed forward and enforced as soon as possible in a drive to eradicate the worst excesses of labour-rights abuse from the Kingdom.
The groups also urged that Thailand lead worker-protection efforts at the Asean level.
The lawyer overseeing labour protection and trafficking in persons for the Human Rights and Development Foundation said her research revealed many instances of forced labour in the Thai fishing industry, both at sea and onshore, and that migrant workers in the sector are particularly at risk.
“In the past, forced labour was noticeable under its traditional definitions such as confinement and physical violence against workers, but right now we can see a shift in the nature of forced labour,” said Nishkan Usayapant.
“We are now facing cases where the workers were forced to work without payment, as the employers deducted their salary to pay off their ‘debts’. The employers often claimed they have paid large expenses to bring the workers from their countries to work in Thailand, so these migrant workers have to pay back these ‘debts’ at very high interest. [The employers] force the workers to work for free without knowing when their debts will be fully settled.”
Nishkan said agricultural labourers suffer from the same pattern of abuse, having been tricked into indebtedness, and then had their personal documents withheld and their wages deducted to pay off the unknown amount of debt. Moreover, they also face various forms of intimidation to prevent them from running away or quitting their jobs.
“I suppose forced labour exists in all kinds of industry and in all forms of employment, formal or informal,” she said. “The only difference is the levels of their vulnerability. Any workers who lack access to safe employment are, nonetheless, vulnerable to such a predicament.”
The Thai Labour Solidarity Committee chairperson, Sawit Kaewwan, revealed that Thai workers across multiple business sectors are subject to similar rights violations.
“Freelance workers and sub-contractors are the major group of victims, as they are not protected by the labour law and are thus most vulnerable to unfair employment conditions” Sawit said.
“We also found that even the employees of state enterprises and many official agencies are victims of unfair employment, as they are paid below the minimum wage and receive very little welfare.”
Nishkan said there are already two major laws to protect individuals from exploitation and forced labour, the Labour Protection Act and the Anti-Human Trafficking Act, but both laws contain loopholes.
The Labour Protection Act in particular failed to comprehensively protect all individuals from different forms of forced labour, while the definitions of “human trafficking” in the Anti-Human Trafficking Act are deemed too narrow.
“Therefore, we need the Prevention and Eradication of Forced Labour Bill to deal with forced labour cases, since this bill will plug the gaps left by these laws,” she said.
Given the evolving nature of the practice, she suggested that the definitions of forced labour in this bill be broadly written to ensure that all workers will be properly covered and protected under the new law.