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Forced or free: Thailand's rating in World labour freedom

Recent legislation affecting a number of Thailand's major export markets has obliged authorities to pay greater attention to issues that ought to have been addressed and resolved more than a century ago: namely the persistence of what is euphemistically referred to as "forced labour", or more bluntly "slavery" within the Thailand manufacturing and service industry supply chain.

A short history of slavery eradication

Slavery is as old as civilization. Students of Roman Law even now deliberate about the rights and obligations of slave owners, the offsprings thereof, and the products of their labour. In Britain, once a major slave trading nation, it took a long and hard struggle by William Wilberforce to pass slavery abolition in 1833. But it was still necessary for the UK to have to pass the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 to combat continuing and ever more sophisticated forms of human bondage. Meanwhile in the USA, which fought a civil war mainly based on whether slavery was an economic virtue or a social vice, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act 2016 upgraded USA legislation. Previously the Tariff Act of 1930 permitted exemptions to prohibitions relating to forced labour in cases where domestic US demand outstripped supply, thereby allowing imports of products which would otherwise have been prohibited because of forced labour content.

In the case of Thailand, the great reformist King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, abolished slavery in 1892 as part of his determination to modernize Siam and transform the country into a progressive and equitable nation. As in Britain and the USA, this reform was not greeted by acclamation by those whose economic interests were prejudiced. As it has turned out, those objectors need not have worried, since their economic interests and human injustices have prevailed to the present day.

Slavery in the World today: alive and well

According to the "Global Slavery Index 2016" there are estimated to be 45.8 million persons living in a state which can be defined as slavery, located in 167 countries evaluated. Half of these persons were located in three countries: India (18.4 million), China (3.4 million) and Pakistan (2.1 million). East Asia represents 30.4 million persons, two-thirds of the world total.

From a separate survey of the International Organization for Migration, it was found that one-third of world-wide victims assisted by IOM were from the Asia-Pacific Region, half of them between 25 and 35 years of age, 82.9% male. The main sector of exploitation was the fishing industry (53%) followed by street vending (23%), prostitution (13%), and domestic work (8%).

Although Asia has been dominant, no country is completely without incidence of slavery, but some countries are more vigilant and responsive in prevention, the top five being predictably, the Netherlands, USA, UK, Sweden and Australia.

Thailand in world slavery perspective

Thailand is supposed to be the "land of the free" but does not rate highly in terms of slavery and forced labour. Thailand rates 16th highest out of 167 countries, in between the Sudan and Ethiopia, with estimated 426,000 enslaved persons. This is a broad, inevitably unsubstantiated figure derived from the Global Slavery Index, but the actual total might be more than this estimate.

The most prevalent and much publicized sector of involvement is the fishing industry, with the main targets being men and boys, mostly from the Mekong Region countries. Victims, suffer severe abuse, with long working hours in adverse conditions, having no opportunity for escape since the deep sea fishing boats remain permanently at sea in distant waters, serviced by transhipment vessels to provide fuel and collect fish catch. Other areas of abuse have included overseas agricultural labour, construction labour in the Middle East, and domestic and restaurant labour worldwide.  

Many of these workers have been duped by recruiters to undertake employment under conditions different from those offered, with heavy recruitment reimbursements demanded, and limitations imposed on freedom of movement, including confiscation of travel documents.

As a geographical hub for the Mekong Region, Thailand has particular attractions, and therefore also challenges for migrant workers. Since there is high demand for working opportunities among surrounding country nationals, high requirement for lower-level workforce in Thailand, but also strict legal restrictions on hiring of foreign workers, many migrant workers are employed outside established labour regulations. These conditions create a highly vulnerable working environment, resulting in many migrant workers falling into the categories of forced labour, but not necessarily reaching the level of slavery. If these workers were included in Thailand's total, the numbers would reach beyond 426,000 persons, and rank Thailand above China, second only to India in the Global Slavery Index totals.

Consequences and Outlook

The recent legislation in the UK and USA, as well as concerns over the status of the fishing industry, has created urgency to rectify Thailand's situation in respect of eradication of forced labour and slavery in the supply chain.

The requirement to eradicate non-free labour from all levels of corporate supply chains, if products are to be exported to developed markets, has become an immediate necessity. Yet recent experiences of persecution of protesting workers, and lawsuits against labour activists championing labour rights, have demonstrated that forced labour and unfair working conditions are hard to eradicate in the present Thailand situation. In the second part of this report, we will indicate steps that can be taken to resolve these challenges in an effective manner, recognizing both Thailand circumstances and international obligations.

Christopher F. Bruton, over 46 years in Thailand, is Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, a local consultancy. He can be reached at Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides meetings, seminars and extensive documentation to update business on present and future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.