NGOs have condemned as the “wrong signal” a decision by the US State Department to downgrade Thailand’s human trafficking record, a month ahead of a referendum being closely watched by the EU.
Following the military coup in May 2014, Thailand has been run by General Prayuth Chan-ocha and a military junta – leading to the suspension of a Free Trade Agreement with Brussels, and the ongoing threat of a ban on fish exports due to illegal and unregulated fishing.
On Thursday (30 June) John Kerry’s US State Department moved Thailand from its Tier 3 ranking – where it has been for the past two years – to Tier 2 “Watch List.”
The State Department made the assessment in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which examines 188 governments’ efforts in combating modern-day slavery.
The promotion for military-led Thailand could ease tensions with the US, its longtime ally. The Thai government reported an increase in prosecutions and convictions for trafficking and had lobbied hard for an upgrade after two years on “tier 3” — the lowest ranking in report, which it had shared with the likes of North Korea and Syria.
It is now on the “tier 2 watch list,” which is for governments that do not fully meet the minimum standards of combating trafficking but are making significant efforts to do so.
But the Environmental Justice Foundation called it “the wrong decision at the wrong time”,
Executive Director Steve Trent said, “By upgrading Thailand to Tier 2 Watch List in 2016, EJF is worried that a wrong signal has been sent to the RTG.
“We believe this is the wrong decision at the wrong time. The actions taken by the RTG must be sustainable and address the many structural problems within the Thai seafood sector, such as the powerful economic incentives to use trafficked, bonded, forced and slave labour.
“Continued pressure is needed to ensure that the reforms introduced are fully and properly implemented and enforced and that they are made durable.
“We are now looking to see what decision the European Union will make on Thailand’s yellow card later this year after reviewing the country’s progress on the improvement of its fisheries and labour practices.”
The Thai Embassy in Washington said in a statement it welcomed the decision “which recognises the progress and significant efforts made by Thailand in the fight against human trafficking”.
Andy Hall, a British lawyer and human rights activist who is facing trial in Bangkok after interviewing workers in the tinned fruit industry over labour abuses, commented that he was “glad to see the.. report raises ongoing concerns on Thailand, human rights defenders and…the Natural Fruit case”.
The EU currently has Thailand’s fish exports sector on a ‘yellow card’, pending further measures on eradicating “illegal, unregulated and unreported” fishing practices which threaten fish stocks.
A red card decision – possible later this year – would see a ban on the industry, worth around $3bn a year.
The junta has repeatedly vowed to crack down on human trafficking, particularly in its seafood industry.
Thailand is gearing up for a referendum on 7 August on a proposed draft constitution, which critics have said leaves the military junta with too many powers over a future civilian administration.
Elections would then follow in the summer of 2017 – some three years after the coup which deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Meanwhile, earlier this week a major Thai food company cut ties with a chicken supplier over allegations of exploitation of migrant workers.
Thailand is one of the world’s top chicken exporters.
Myanmar workers on a farm in central Lopburi province this week accused bosses of unlawfully low pay and punishing working hours.
The Thammakaset Farm 2 supplies chicken to Betagro Group, one of the biggest Thai food companies with clients across the world.
On Wednesday (29 Julne) Betagro issued a statement saying it had “stopped business operations with the farm until there is a solution for the labour conflict”.
“The chicken industry needs this scrutiny…this is modern day slavery,” said Hall said.
He said the problems begin with recruitment agencies charging workers steep sums for job placements, leaving them in effective “debt bondage” and vulnerable to further abuse from employers.
The majority of Thailand’s migrant labourers hail from neighbouring Myanmar, where decades of poverty under former military leaders drove millions to cross the border in search of higher wages.
The rights of Myanmar migrant workers topped the agenda during Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand last week, the democracy activist’s first since her party took power in April.
Suu Kyi pledged to strengthen protections for her countrymen and drive economic changes at home that could pave the way for their return.