Belarus, Burundi, Mauritania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan and Turkmenistan are among the 22 countries with the worst human trafficking records in 2018, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
The report notes that for the first time, a majority of victims in 2018 were trafficked within their countries of citizenship, especially in cases of labor trafficking.
In Turkmenistan, where the government “continued to engage in large-scale mobilizations of its adult citizens for forced labor in the annual cotton harvest and in public works projects, no officials were held accountable for their role or direct complicity in trafficking crimes,” according to the report.
Further, the report states that “the continued imprisonment and abuse of an independent observer of the cotton harvest and state surveillance practices dissuaded monitoring of the harvest during the reporting period.”
Gaspar Matalaev, a labor rights activist with Turkmen.news, who monitored and reported on the systematic use of forced adult labor and child labor in Turkmenistan, remains falsely imprisoned since 2016, days after Turkmen.news published his extensive report on the country’s forced labor practices.
He has been tortured with electric shocks and held incommunicado, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations, including the Solidarity Center, working to end forced labor in the cotton fields. (Send a message to the Turkmenistan government to immediately release Matalaev.)
Uzbekistan, another country with vast, state-sponsored forced labor in the cotton fields, remained on the watch list, a ranking indicating more progress by the government than in Turkmenistan. Although the Uzbekistan government has made strides in ending forced labor, public-sector employees continue to be coerced into a variety of construction and municipal service work, as documented in a recent report by the Solidarity Center and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF). In addition, at least 175,000 people were forced to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan’s 2018 harvest.
Migrant Workers Vulnerable to Exploitation, Trafficking
The Trafficking in Persons report also details how labor recruiters often act as human traffickers, taking advantage of migrant workers who lack information on the hiring process, are unfamiliar with legal protections and options for recourse, and often face language barriers.
“Certain unscrupulous recruitment practices known to facilitate human trafficking include worker-paid recruitment fees, misrepresentation of contract terms, contract switching, and destruction or confiscation of identity documents,” the report states.
The report continues: “Low-wage migrant laborers are extremely vulnerable to and at high risk of exploitative practices such as unsafe working conditions, unfair hiring practices, and debt bondage—a form of human trafficking.”
Each year, the State Department ranks countries in one of four tiers, basing its assessment primarily on the extent of governments’ efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking outlined in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Countries at the bottom, Tier 3, fail to show they are making any effort to end human trafficking.
The State Department has issued the report annually since 2001, following passage in Congress of the TVPA in 2000.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two countries where forced labor in cotton harvests is rampant, have been downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report released this morning. The report also downgraded Myanmar (Burma) but boosted the ranking of Thailand, which a coalition of labor and human rights groups says has not meaningfully addressed human trafficking and should not have been upgraded.
The report, which ranks countries based on their efforts to fight forced labor and human trafficking, downgraded Myanmar, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the lowest level (Tier 3), meaning their governments do not comply with minimum U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards and are not making significant efforts to become compliant.
Each year, the Uzbek government forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks during last fall’s harvest. Last year, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing researchers independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.
In 2015, the State Department boosted Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to the “Tier 2 Watchlist,” saying the country was making efforts to become compliant with the TVPA, a move rejected by human rights activists who each year risk their lives to document widespread forced labor during cotton harvests.
Thailand Should Not Be Upgraded
Moving Thailand from the report’s lowest ranking is not warranted, according to a 13-member coalition, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), which includes the Solidarity Center.
“Thailand’s lack of policy implementation and meaningful change on the ground calls for the lowest Tier 3 ranking,” says Kristen Abrams, ATEST acting director.
In June 2014, the State Department downgraded Thailand to the lowest ranking, due to reports of migrant workers, primarily from Burma and Cambodia, working in slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats, fueling the country’s $7.3 billion seafood export industry and making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Today, many migrant workers still toil in forced labor and are held against their will on the boats where they are beaten and even killed. Thailand’s estimated 3 million migrants make up 10 percent of its workforce, but in seafood processing the make up 90 percent.
In releasing the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the plight of domestic workers, many of whom are working in countries far from their homes and are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Kerry announced the creation of a model contract for domestic workers based on international standards and a memorandum of understanding for origin and destination countries that sets clear standards designed to prevent the abuses of domestic work.
‘Malaysia Has Done Little to Address Trafficking’
This year’s report also fails to fix last year’s controversial upgrade of Malaysia, according to the coalition.
“More than a year after the discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims along the Malaysia-Thailand border, there is little evidence that Malaysia has taken anything more than meager steps to address its troublesome human trafficking situation,” Abrams says.
Among the 27 countries on Tier 3, the lowest ranking, are Algeria, Burundi, Haiti, Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Profits from forced labor account for $150 billion per year, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The report organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those making significant efforts to meet those standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” for those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that are not making significant efforts.
The Trafficking in Persons report, which has been issued annually for 16 years, covers 188 countries and is required by the 2000 TVPA law.