By Dave Bernard
Already under fire amid recent reports of government complicity in widespread forced labor practices in its vast seafood industry, Thailand on Friday received an official downgrade by the U.S. State Department for its overall handling of human trafficking.
With the release of its yearly report on efforts by the world’s goverments to combat human trafficking, the U.S. State Department placed Thailand and also Malaysia in the lowest, so-called Tier 3 status, which includes such nations as North Korea and Iran. Both countries were downgraded from their previous Tier 2 “watch list” status – a country is automatically downgraded after four consecutive years on Tier 2 unless judged by the State Department to have made significant progress to correct human trafficking issues.
Just this month, major U.S. retailers faced criticism for buying large quantities of prawns (sold as “shrimp” domestically) from the world’s largest prawn farmer, Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, a company that admittedly purchases fish feed from suppliers that use slave labor on their fishing vessels. One of the American retailers implicated in the scandal is Costco, CP Foods customer that says it’s actively attempting to verify the reports of slavery in CP’s manufacturing chain. Costco has a longstanding Supplier Code of Conduct that specifically prohibits human trafficking, among other practices.
A report following a six-month investigation that appeared in the prestigious The Guardian newspaper on June 10 documented systematic exploitation of Burmese and Cambodian immigrants, with workers being sold into slavery on Thai-based fishing vessels. Various U.S. government officials and international human rights organizations point to Thai government complicity and even involvement in human trafficking as the core issue perpetuating the country’s human trafficking problem.
While designation in Tier 3 does not automatically call for penalties, the downgrade puts Thailand at risk of losing out on some forms of U.S. aid and could also result in the U.S. opposing certain types of assistance from the International Monetary Fund and other international bodies. The downgrade starts a 90-day period during which President Obama will determine what if any action to take.
While specific penalties may or may not ensue, the stigma of being relgated to Tier 3 status could prove a motivating factor for Thai reform. The New York Times had reported that Phil Robertson, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch Asia, suggested that the State Department report could help spur reform due to Thailand’s embarrassment of “being grouped into the worse of the worse.”
The Thai goverment recently disputed assertions that it is not doing enough to combat human trafficking, with the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating in a news release last week that Thailand produced significantly more trafficking-related investigations, prosecutions and convictions last year than in 2012.
While conceeding that the country had shown some improvement, mostly with regard to sex-trafficking, Luis CdeBaca, the State Department’s Ambassador at Large at its Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, stated that very little progress has been made on the front of migrant worker abuses and related government complicity. “That (migrant worker issue) is an area that needs more policing, more enforcement,” said CdeBaca, according to the New York Times.