Little being done to counter rampant trafficking of Burmese into fishing industry

national February 28, 2012 00:00

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
The Nation

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Labour exploitation, human trafficking and bondage of migrant workers from Burma continues in Samut Sakhon's shrimp-processing factories and onboard trawlers despite the passing of an anti-human-trafficking law nearly four years ago, said Sompong Srakaew

Exactly how many workers are trapped in bondage inside shrimp factories or lured and forced to work on deep-sea fishing trawlers is unknown. But, Sompong, who worked in this area for eight years, estimates about 30 per cent of the 400,000-plus Burmese workers in the province are exploited beyond Thai laws.

Bosses confiscate work permits, temporary passports and identity cards so that Burmese in fish-processing factories cannot seek employment elsewhere. Worse still, some are held in small factories and not allowed to leave the compound and forced to work like slaves.

Young migrant men are also being trafficked into forced labour aboard deep-sea fishing boats via false documentation with the aid of corrupt Thai officials and police.

“It’s hard to pin down the figures by making an estimate,” Sompong said. “But they are definitely there and they end up as virtually slave labour.”

In November 2009, two employers at Anoma shrimp-processing factory were charged with forcing 73 foreign workers including 25 children to be “slaves”, working from 2am until 8pm every day. This was among other abuses that according to the local police inquiry report included “keeping them in slave-like conditions… confining of people [including] women and children by means of threat or use of force to achieve their consent to allow him/herself or others to exploit them…”

While the two employers were eventually sentenced to eight and five years, they are now out on bail fighting their conviction in the Appeal Court while many workers cannot afford to spend time to follow the case.

Even Thai men have been forced to work on fishing trawlers. The Mirror Foundation’s Anti-Human Trafficking Centre published a report last year that said there had been 83 recorded cases of Thais aged between 14 to 55 tricked or abducted to work on fishing boats in Thai waters and beyond.

Sompong believes the Thai government isn’t doing enough to warn Thai and migrant workers of the danger of these industries. He said even signs warning job-seekers at busy transport hubs like Mor Chit Bus Terminal put up by Mirror Foundation have been removed.

“Thais want to tell ourselves that no human trafficking exists. If they admit it, they fear it will be bad for tourism.”

Sompong said the government should run a vigorous and visible campaign to warn job-seekers, both Thai and foreign, about the danger of human trafficking and forced labour at transport hubs such as bus and train terminals and also petrol stations. He said unlike the very visible anti-drug billboards, no such campaign has been run in Thailand to date.

Once people are inside factories or on-board ships, very little can be done to help them. Those on boats face a life-threatening work environment, while those detained inside prison-like factories cannot seek help. “Some are detained and cannot come out to call for help.”

But Sompong said formal recognition of job-brokers by the government may help reduce the number of people duped into virtual bondage, as only half of the estimated 100 to 200 job-brokers were reliable and trustworthy.

Burma also needed to do more, he said. For the eight years he has been trying to protect migrant workers from Burma, the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok had never sent anyone to speak to him or ask for his advice or collaborate on any project.

“They have never sent anyone here,” he said.

Sompong said he took a group of Chulalongkorn University graduates to some factories in Samut Sakhon two weeks ago. But they only saw high walls and fences that looked like prisons from the outside. And no one could enter.