HRAS Interview No.25: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

HRAS Interview: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

Thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos cross the border into Thailand each year. They trade poverty at home for the possibility of relative prosperity abroad. A Thai proverb – escaping from the tiger, then meeting the crocodile – describes the fate of many.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Phil Robertson, on the ground in Thailand for Human Rights Watch, about the pattern of abuse for those forced into slavery in the fishing industry.

Migrant workers coming into Thailand face being debt-bonded in order to get work. What makes them vulnerable to this human rights abuse?

Sometimes they choose to go because they want to support family members back home. Sometimes there’s a sense of adventure. Sometimes it’s out of desperation.

The people coming from Myanmar are from rural families and are often very poor. They have little to no access to cash income. Brokers are offering pay packets that, if these people knew what the situation was in Thailand, they’d recognize as totally unrealistic, but they don’t.

Less than a year ago, we prepared a report about land seizures and human rights abuses in Karen state in Myanmar, which borders Thailand. What we found was land seizures by military groups and local officials, well-connected people. They are literally showing up with land ownership documents issued by local authorities and putting people off land that they have worked on as farmers for generations. When the farmers protest, they get arrested.

The farmers either end up working as day laborers for a pittance or living with relatives, with some of the family members being sent to Thailand to find work and send back money. We interviewed people, actually the children of those that had lost land. They were scratching out a living, barely, by recycling other people’s trash. There’s a lot of familial obligation to provide money to the parents, and so they hear an offer to go down to Bangkok where they’ll receive a much higher salary, and they see the positive aspects of it, they don’t necessarily see the risks.

These are the realities of the migrant universe in Thailand that the authorities are not really touching yet with the reforms that have been implemented so far.

How are workers debt-bonded?

Take for instance a worker on the Thai/Myanmar border working at a local construction site. The recruiter says, “Hey, you can do a lot better than that. Come to Bangkok, I can find you a job: pay you 7000 or 8000 Thai baht a month. You don’t need to pay me any money now, but down there, I’ll arrange the job for you, and I will recoup whatever my costs are for arranging that and moving you down. There’ll be a couple months of deductions, and you’ll be all set. You’ll get a job, and you’ll be in a much better place than you are now.”

And that construction worker says “Well, geez, that sounds really good. What do I need to do?”

How are they then brought across the border into Thailand?

Usually they start with a long walk. Crossing the border is fairly easy, but then the broker will take them one or two days traversing through the jungle to avoid border checkpoints. Then they get to a pre-arranged meeting place where they’re picked up by a truck, usually being driven by either a policeman or the relative of an official who won’t get stopped by police on the way to Bangkok. They are hidden in the back of the vehicle, sometimes packed in like sardines.

Usually there is a mix of people who are going. The truck stops in various different places and drops off workers at different workplaces. For those sent by brokers working for fishing fleets, they end up in a port. They’re poor. They get out of the truck, and they’re surrounded by toughs. They don’t know where they are, they don’t speak the Thai language, they have no documents. There’s really no other options. They just have to get on that boat.

We see that kind of deceptive recruitment connected to brokers, and the way they move people into this country, time and time and time again.

What is Human Rights Watch’s approach to combatting these human rights abuses?

Our focus at Human Rights Watch is pretty much always the same. We investigate. We expose the abuses that we have found after rigorous documentation. Then we work on a change strategy, an advocacy strategy based on our assessment of where the problems are and what needs to happen to solve them.

Sometimes we’ll make recommendations to governments; sometimes to private companies; sometimes to international organizations. It really depends on our assessment of the situation and who the rights abusers are and where the pressure points are to try to stop them.

What is Thailand doing about the problems?

The Thai authorities are doing very little to combat the pattern of debt bondage and foreign worker exploitation. They have decided that the manpower agencies and brokers that bring workers into the country should be regulated. That’s all well and good, but there’s an entire sort of subterranean way of coming into the country that the authorities are not even getting close to touching yet. That whole group of people, that whole network, operates on the “travel now, pay later” system. And far too often, the “pay later” part of that equation involves persons held in what amounts to slavery.

What needs to be done?

The first problem is that there’s no good avenue for the migrant workers to effectively complain about what’s happening to them to officials that is disconnected from those who are taking advantage of them. The situation really calls for an ombudsman with effective powers to investigate, operating with the resources and interpreters to go down to the ground, to really understand the kind of abuses that are taking place and take concrete action.

Our research has shown that when migrant workers are faced with employment problems and complain, whether they go to the local ministry of labor office or their employer, they face immediate retaliation. That keeps them in a state of fear. Facing a difficult situation, facing human rights abuses, they do what any ordinary person with little power would do. They try to escape, to run away. The last thing they want to do is complain.

Ultimately we need to delink migrant worker registration and status from employers. Migrant workers should receive, let’s say, registration directly with the Thai government for four years. They can then take their registration ID card and work wherever they want for as long as they want, and if they don’t like it at that workplace, then they can resign and leave the next day like any other person can, and go find another job.

Do labour source nations, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, have any control over the situation?

What we see in Myanmar, and it’s the same in many different countries around the world, is a lot of corruption in the recruitment process. The manpower companies are being run to earn maximum profit for their owners through very high recruitment fees, and often times the people who own these businesses are relatives of senior officials or relatives of the police – the sort of governing riff-raff that take advantage of connections to take advantage of people trying to seek a better life.

The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, and Population in Myanmar has done a very poor job of effectively regulating recruitment. And it’s not just Myanmar. You can see the same thing in Cambodia. You can see the same thing in Vietnam. In Vietnam, many of these manpower agencies are connected directly to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs.

Bribes are paid at all levels in these labour recruitment operations. Ultimately, the cost of all those illicit payments ends up on the final bill of the worker who’s going overseas. In some cases, workers have paid thousands of dollars to take a job where they are going to be cheated and exploited.

Is anything happening at a regional level?

The region has done very little to protect the rights of migrant workers or look out for their better interests despite the fact that so many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are dependent on the remittances sent back by migrant workers for the success of their economies.

ASEAN needs an instrument to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers. Currently, there’s a fundamental regulatory failure when looking at the issue of protection of migrant workers and worker rights.

What role do you see the media playing?

I think that media exposés are absolutely critical to make progress on how can we protect the rights of workers in these countries. Those done by The New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, the Guardian and others are excellent. They need to keep coming.

There needs to be more investigative journalism. That’s the real challenge, I think for countries like Australia and the U.S., Canada and Europe that are receiving imports of food and other products. They owe an obligation to the consumers of those products to say where the products are really coming from and under what conditions they’re being produced.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2010: From the Tiger to the Crocodile Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand. Phil is now working on another report due to be published later this year focusing particularly on Thailand’s seafood industry. Human Rights at Sea looks forward to its publication. Thank-you, Phil.

Link to 2010 report: https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/02/23/tiger-crocodile/abuse-migrant-workers-thailand