Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela failed to comply with the minimum standards to address human trafficking over the past year, according to the State Department in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) released today.

The three countries were downgraded from the department’s “Tier 2 Watch List” to “Tier 3.” Such a downgrade makes the countries liable to sanctions, which could include the withholding or withdrawal of U.S. non-humanitarian and non-trade-related assistance. The State Department is required by law to move countries off the Tier 2 Watch List after two years on the list (or four years with a waiver).

Migrant workers, primarily from Burma and Cambodia, work in slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats, fueling the country’s $7 billion seafood export industry and making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Many migrant workers toil in forced labor and are held against their will on the boats where they are beaten and even killed. A recent Guardian series is the latest report on the horrors endured by migrant workers who often are tricked by labor recruiters and sold into bondage. Estimates of migrant workers in Thailand range from 200,000 to 500,000.

A survey by the International Labor Organization (ILO) last year of nearly 600 workers in the Thai fishing industry found that almost none had a signed contract, and about 40 percent had wages cut without explanation. Children were also found on board. A 2009 U.N. report found that about six out of 10 migrant workers on Thai fishing boats reported seeing a co-worker killed. In another report, migrant workers say they were trafficked and forced to work for up to 20 hours per day with little or no pay. Many migrant workers in Thailand are in debt bondage.

The Solidarity Center was one of the first organizations to publish a comprehensive report about labor exploitation in the Thai seafood industry back in 2007 entitled The True Cost of Shrimp.

The Solidarity Center works with several allied organizations in Thailand, including the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), to combat trafficking for forced labor. In April, the MWRN negotiated an unprecedented $1.67 million severance package for 1,200 laid-off Burmese migrant workers. The Solidarity Center provided the legal analysis and opinion that showed the workers’ employer was legally bound to pay severance to the migrant workers.

Also in April, the MWRN and the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF), another key Solidarity Center partner, rescued a Burmese migrant worker who was sold and forced to work on a fishing boat. The MWRN and HRDF also contacted the police to rescue other trafficking victims from the fishing boat. The boat captain was arrested and the Solidarity Center is monitoring the police investigation to ensure all perpetrators are brought to justice.

Formed in 2009, the MWRN in recent years has focused on negotiating with employers for better wages and working conditions. In one instance, the MWRN negotiated commitments from employers to continue employing migrant workers with expired visas until they received new visas, rather than fire workers as employers had done.

The MWRN also secured commitments from the Thai government not to arrest migrant workers working on expired visas and to fine employers for firing such workers. The Solidarity Center provides support to the MWRN to educate migrant workers about their right to freedom of association. As a result, MWRN membership has grown from 700 to 3,000 in the past year.

The strong support for collective bargaining is also reflected in an ILO survey, which shows a majority of fishers interviewed—nearly 51 percent—say they are interested in union representation. 

The Solidarity Center has for years promoted freedom of association as a key strategy for preventing human trafficking, forced labor and other forms of severe labor exploitation and the Trafficking in Persons report shows how much more needs to be done by the government to address labor trafficking.

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