Human trafficking, forced labour and slavery are a significant and on-going issue in Thailand, which is both a source and destination country for exploited migrant labour. Severe labour abuses have been reported in the Thai fishing, seafood and fruit processing factories, and in the garment sector, among others. Thai nationals have also been trafficked from Thailand on large scales to work in exploitative conditions in other countries, including the United States and Israel.
The vulnerability and discrimination often suffered by documented and undocumented migrants, ethnic minorities and stateless persons mean they are most at risk of being trafficked in Thailand. Key sectors of the Thai economy rely heavily on migrant labour, and it is estimated that Thailand currently has up to three million migrant workers, the majority of whom are from neighbouring Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Human Rights Watch reports that migrant workers frequently suffer a range of abusive employment practices, including discrimination, physical and verbal abuse, forced overtime, poor wages, illegal deductions and dangerous working conditions. Undocumented workers are at particular risk, as are migrants who have had to incur debts in Thailand and in their countries of origin to secure employment.
Corruption is frequently cited as both a contributor and a barrier to addressing human trafficking, forced labour and slavery. Thai officials have been implicated in the trafficking and abuse of migrants, including as part of large scale trafficking syndicates. Reluctance on the part of police to investigate cases against important figures or large companies also contributes to a culture of impunity, and to very low rates of prosecution and conviction, especially for labour exploitation. However some NGOs report increased effort on the part of the Thai government and police to address corruption and investigate human trafficking cases following pressure from the United States and the European Union.
The Thai fishing industry
Exploitation in the fishing industry is a particular concern in Thailand, as NGO and media reports document widespread abuse of migrant workers on Thai fishing boats. Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world, with exports totaling £5bn in 2013, yet Thai fishing boats are often unregistered and unregulated. Particular problems are reported in the shrimp catching and processing sector, where the large number of smaller operators make this a difficult sector to regulate. Research conducted by the International Labour Organisation in 2013-4 found that the vast majority of workers on Thai fishing boats were irregular migrants, who suffered widespread abuse of Thai labour laws on fishing vessels, including instances of forced labour.
In response to this problem, the Thai Government has established Labour Coordination Centres (LCCs) to manage recruitment into the fishing industry, and initiated a programme of joint inspections at sea. The Government also introduced new regulations governing the employment conditions of fishing workers. However NGOs report that serious problems remain: these include the voluntary nature of private sector participation in LCCs, meaning weak employer engagement; jurisdictional and resource constraints; and improperly conducted inspections. As a result, few cases of labour exploitation have been uncovered, prosecutions of recruiters are rare, and boat owners are never prosecuted.
The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act BE 2551 (2008) criminalises human trafficking for both sexual and labour exploitation in similar terms to the UN Human Trafficking Protocol. In 2014, 280 human trafficking cases were investigated, 155 defendants were prosecuted and 104 defendants were convicted under this Act.
The Act provides for criminal liability of both individuals and legal persons (i.e. companies) and for extraterritorial jurisdiction, as well as providing for victim protection and compensation. In 2015 the Act was amended to introduce new measures, including increased penalties and a requirement that assets confiscated under the Anti-Money Laundering Law are used to compensate victims and paid to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Fund. The amendments also empower authorities to inspect suspicious and at-risk workplaces, and to temporarily close workplaces or suspend operating licences of factories or vehicles where human trafficking is suspected.
The Criminal Code criminalises treating a person as a slave, including buying, selling, or restraining a person. The Code also includes offences of child abduction and child trafficking; deprivation of liberty; and the act of taking a person out of Thailand using fraudulent, deceptive, or coercive means.
Under Thai law corporate criminal liability attaches to criminal offences if a director, officer or other person acting with the authority of the company commits an offence. Such a director, officer or other person acting within the scope of authority of the company may also be individually criminally liable. The Anti-Human Trafficking Act specifically provides that if the offence is caused by an order, act or omission that is the obligation of the managing director, or any person who is responsible for carrying out the business of the company, such person may be liable for imprisonment from six years to twelve years and a fine of up to two hundred and forty thousand Baht. In the case of human trafficking committed by a company, the penalty under the Act is a fine of up to one million Baht. However it is very rare for a company to be prosecuted for an offence in Thailand, and there are no known cases of a company being prosecuted for human trafficking.
The Labour Protection Act B.E. 2541 (1998) is the principal labour law statute in Thailand, and sets out the duties and obligations of employers and the rights and responsibilities of the employees. Key protections provided under the Act include the payment of minimum wage, overtime, maximum working hours and days, and special provisions for child workers. Companies, as “juristic persons” may be held liable and fined for violations of the Act. Additionally, where the violation is as a result of the act or omission of a Managing Director or other responsible person, that person may also be held individually liable.
Importantly, the Act also deals with the responsibility of head contractors for workers throughout the supply chain. Section 11 provides that a business that has used a third party to recruit workers is nonetheless to be regarded as the employer of the worker and responsible for providing the worker with a contract and paying wages. Section 12 similarly makes all contractors in a labour supply chain, including the head contractor, jointly liable for the payment of wages, overtime, holiday pay and other benefits.
In light of the particular issues in the fishing industry, the Thai Government has put in place Ministerial Regulation Concerning Labour Protection in Sea Fishery Work BE 2557. Key aspects of the Regulation include the prohibition of employment of persons under 18 years of age, provision for minimum hours of rest, the provision of a record of employment and written contract, and the provision of drinking water, toilets and medical supplies for workers. Specific legislation is also in place for another group of vulnerable workers in the Home Workers Protection Act BE 2553. This Act sets out the rights of homeworkers and duties of hirers, including the payment of minimum rates of pay, restrictions on deductions, and provisions for health and safety.
Labour recruitment is also addressed in the Employment and Job Seeker Protection Act B.E. 2528 (1985). This Act covers the licensing and practices of recruitment agents, and was amended in 2008 in light of increasing reports of recruiters engaging in fraud and deceptive conduct. The Act requires that recruiters be licensed and comply with a set of procedures when sending a job seeker to work abroad, and that recruiters provide security of at least 50 000 Baht on registration, to be used to pay damages to the worker in the event of the recruiter’s violation of the Act. As the application of the Act is limited in effect to workers sent abroad for work, the International Labour Organisation has recommended that it should be extended to expressly cover recruitment of migrants for work in Thailand, given the widespread and exploitative activities of unregulated domestic recruiters.
Migrant workers, and undocumented workers in particular, face significant challenges in protecting their labour rights. Documented migrants are allowed to join labour unions, but are not able to form their own, and in reality are rarely union members. Undocumented migrants who complain of mistreatment risk being reported to police or immigration authorities, and fear approaching authorities themselves following threats of ‘crackdowns’ and reports of police brutality. In order to reduce the vulnerability of undocumented workers, the Thai Government began a policy of registering “illegal migrants” in 2014, with incentives including reduced fees and temporary work permits. Under this programme, 1,626,235 migrant workers and their dependents were registered from June to October 2014, making a total of over 2.5 milion registered migrant workers.
The enforcement of labour standards also remains generally weak. The Thai government reports that joint inspections are carried out by the Police and Department of Labour, and that inspections in 2014 led to 1,316 workplaces being charged with labour law violations, 79 victims of human trafficking being identified and 44 arrests made. Given the size of the problem, however, these figures are low, and significant practical barriers remain to workers’ access to remedies.Back to top