A Rohingya man carries a basket of fish, as Thailand is accused of forcing migrants into its workforce.Source: Getty Images
Thailand’s infamously abusive fishing industry has kept the country on the US’s people trafficking shame list for the second year running.
The State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report again highlights forced labour of migrants, who constitute about 80 per cent of offshore crews because of the Thai industry’s dire conditions.
“Some Thai (government) officials are complicit in trafficking crimes and corruption continues to undermine anti-trafficking efforts,” according to the report released overnight
It comes as an Indonesian Government taskforce investigating widespread illegalities in eastern fisheries uncovers evidence of Thai involvement and practices, including enslavement of migrant fisherman, though that is not canvassed in Washington’s report.
However Thai seafood exporters, a major foreign revenue earner, are unlikely to suffer sanctions as a result of Thailand’s continued Tier 3 bottom-ranking.
The trafficking report is drawing criticism from human rights groups for upgrading Malaysia this year from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 watch list, for countries now “making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance” with US anti-trafficking law.
Thailand and Malaysia were the focus of an international uproar during May as thousands of boat people, Rohingya asylum-seekers and Bangladeshi migrant workers, were trapped at sea by a Thai crackdown on trafficking networks.
More than 3000 people struggled to land in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, as Thai and Malaysian investigators uncovered horrific evidence of extortion camps in jungles on either side of their border.
There, traffickers held and violently abused migrants headed for Malaysia’s black labour markets, to extort money from their families under threat of selling men and boys onto Thai trawlers.
Bodies of 135 migrants have so far been recovered from graves around the camps.
“Malaysia’s record on stopping trafficking in persons is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade from Washington,” said Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Roberston.
“Migrants are being trafficked and abused with impunity, Rohingya victims’ bodies are being pulled from shallow graves at the border and convictions are down this year compared to last year — so how can the State Department call this ‘progress’?”
Mr Robertson and other critics are linking Malaysia’s upgrade, and removal from immediate threat of sanctions, to the looming US-driven trade pact, known as Trans Pacific Partnership.
Malaysia, alongside Australia, is one of 12 nations negotiating the ambitious and controversial TPP. Thailand is not.
Australia’s near-neighbour, Papua New Guinea, was also upgraded to State’s people-trafficking watch list after seven years on Tier 3.
So far, Thailand’s military government is responding carefully to its continued inclusion with the likes of North Korea, Syria, Iran and Russia among the 23 countries on the Tier 3 shame list.
However officials and exporters are complaining the report’s March 31 cut-off excludes consideration of recent efforts to crack down on people trafficking and illegal fishing, where slavery and other labour abuses are rife.
Last week Thailand indicted 72 alleged people traffickers including a senior military officer, Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, four policeman and government officials, in relation to the May exposures.
Tier 3 listing by the State Department “may” draw limited US sanctions, on non-humanitarian and non-trade aid, and Washington pressure on international lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to withhold funds.
Last year, Barak Obama waived sanctions against Thailand and he is expected to do so again before October.
However, the Thai fishing and processing industries are at risk of commercial sanctions from the European Union issued a six-month “yellow card” against Thailand.
An EU decision on sanctions is due by October 21.
Thai seafood exports last year were worth Bt108 billion ($4.25 billion), with the US taking more than 20 per cent and the EU about 13 per cent.
Australia in 2014 imported $324 million-worth of Thai fisheries products.