Need for immediate action against human trafficking

opinion June 29, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Downgrade in US report is a wake-up call for Thailand to crack down on these heinous practices

Seafood is big business in Thailand. It generates more than US$7 billion for the country and the sector employs more than 650,000 people. 
But there is a problem. Some of the businesses are guilty of employing slave labour. Some of these labourers don’t even make it alive to the shore because, as a way of cutting overhead cost, they are murdered and dumped in the high sea. 
Others are sold from ship to ship and often stay out in the sea for months before they see the shore. 
But few of us think about these gory facts when we sit at the dinner table and munch on delicious shrimp and other seafood. Perhaps we are unaware. Perhaps we don’t want to know. But the fact of the matter is, this dark side of the industry comes with a price and this could take a toll this time on the country’s economy, the consumers, the industry’s giants, and the government for not doing enough to curb these illicit practices in spite of ample warnings. 
After a two-year grace period, the US State Department has decided enough is enough. Thailand is now one of the worst violators. We are among 188 countries judged every year on how we deal with the issue of human trafficking. In a recently released annual report on human trafficking, the country’s fishing industry was highlighted. The report is part of an effort to pressure countries like Thailand to criminalise human trafficking.
Because of the size of its economy and geographical proximity, Thailand has for decades attracted migrant workers from neighbouring countries in mainland Southeast Asia. 
Most come willingly, taking up backbreaking jobs shunned by Thais. Others get thrown into the sex trade and sweatshops where they work long hours with little benefits. 
Many who come don’t really know what they are getting into. All sorts of stories are told, good and bad. But many try their luck, probably feeling they don’t have much to gain by remaining in their home country. 
And so they pay brokers, including corrupt Thai officials, who traffic them to the country and sell them to shipowners who force them to work 18-hour shifts. 
The US State Department was not the only source of information. Local and foreign media have reported on these issues but the industry and the authorities had decided to turn a deaf ear. 
A recent investigative report by The Guardian newspaper of Britain forced at least one major retailer to cease doing business with Thailand’s fishing industry until it could prove that slave labour was not being used. 
The burden of proof is on Thailand and the current crop of leaders are hard pressed to do something about it. 
The junta who came to power through a coup just weeks ago has made the well-being of migrant workers one of its high priorities. A damage-control exercise, perhaps, but surely they can’t claim complete ignorance about this mess. 
Like other Thai government agencies, the military and law enforcement powers knew about these happenings but did not prevent it. 
We shouldn’t have to wait for some foreign government to issue a report or some foreign supermarket boycott of our products to force us to take action. First and foremost, we need to take action because it is the right thing to do. And when we do the right thing from the start, good things will follow.