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 

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The HRAS Interview: Steve Trent, Co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)

Steve Trent

Over fishing and Commonplace Violence in Thailand

“In all my experience, over two decades, I cannot think of situations that I’ve seen where extreme violence has been as commonplace as it is in Thailand,” says Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), talking about Thailand’s seafood industry.

It’s an industry that he says stands out globally for its environmental and human rights abuses, and one, therefore, that if turned around, could set a valuable example for positive change across a wide range of industries throughout the world.

Trent points out that one United Nations survey found that 59 percent of seafarers surveyed had witnessed the murder of a crew member.

“All too often, vulnerable people have been trafficked on to the vessels, and many of them are actually being used as slaves. There’s no intention of paying them and no intention of releasing them. They are slaves in every sense of the word.”

Myo Min Naing, 21, is one victim in thousands. He was promised a good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand before being trafficked into the country. He was transported with five others in a marked police car, driven by men in plain clothes, before being forced onto a fishing vessel.

He was compelled to work on the boat for ten months without pay before he managed to escape. He and his fellow crewmembers suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf: “I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored and he hit me from behind. It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious, and he smashed my face against the ice.”

HRAS spoke to Trent about the issues and what the U.K.-based charity is doing to help people like Naing.

HRAS: The collaborations that have made the widespread use of slave labour possible span Thai society. How can it have reached such a level?

When we started to examine it, the Thai fishing industry was completely out of control. There was no coherent fisheries management regime, and that led to an explosion in the number of boats and therefore the capacity in the industry. This in turn led to the fishing down of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand such that most of the high value species are gone.

The boats need to stay out longer, use more fuel and fish harder to catch a product that is diminishing all the time. This, therefore, means diminishing economic returns for the vessel operators. It is one of the primary motivations behind using bonded and slave labour.

The situation has reached the point where today, where if you took away that free or very cheap labour, many of those vessels that are operating quite simply wouldn’t be economic any more.

HRAS: How many slaves are there out on the boats?

From evidence obtained directly from our own investigations, we are sure its hundreds upon hundreds. By collective analysis, if you look at the United Nations survey, information from the Guardian, witness testimonies and other sources, you can see that it’s much larger numbers. There’s somewhere between 650,000 and 900,000 workers in the Thai seafood sector, and best estimates suggest that over 90 percent of them are migrant workers. You can say large numbers of those have been trafficked in, so you start to get an idea of the scale.

HRAS: EJF investigations have resulted in a number of reports and films that highlight the problems. What else have you been doing?

The recommendations we have made in the reports are not just a shopping list of ad-hoc nice to have ideas. They are finely tuned to the practical needs of Thailand, and we are always happy to provide precise detail and depth. So when we talk about vessel monitoring systems for example, I’ve had somebody in Bangkok sitting in the government command and control centre training people.

We are trying to deliver mechanisms that will enhance transparency and traceability. That’s the bedrock, because once you have that, then independent scrutiny can be applied and you have the ability to police change over time.

We have a fairly finely calibrated advocacy. We are not necessarily going out to huge numbers of individuals, but we try to talk to individuals and organizations that have specific points of influence within the sector. In Thailand, I’ve met personally with the deputy prime minister and other key ministers including the labour minister, foreign minister and agriculture ministry and the chief of the navy. That is the level at which we seek to engage and operate.

We work at comparable levels commercially in the Thai seafood industry’s major markets. The sustainable shrimp taskforce was originally set up at our request. We suggested the idea for the industry to get together and start addressing the issues that they had in their supply chain and the leverage they could bring by applying the pressure of their corporate dollars or their ability to change their sourcing and production methods.

HRAS: Thailand remains at the lowest level in the Trafficking in Persons reporting scheme, yet change is occurring slowly. What has been achieved to date?

We’ve now got a situation where the legal fundamentals are in place in Thailand to eradicate human trafficking. Over the last few years, Thailand has adopted a comprehensive range of fisheries and labour management laws.

Additionally, there’s been quite significant commercial pressure exerted through the diversion of investment that would arguably have gone to Thailand but has now gone to neighbouring states. That’s really significant, not because we want some sort of crude punitive punishment but because money talks. If people see money moving away, they realize that they have to act.

We have also seen a focus on reputation in Thailand. People often talk about Asian states and their concern for reputation, but in my experience, governments all over the world have a high regard for their reputation.

Big companies are also looking at their brand reputation and at protecting their market share, and they are asking: Do we really want to be associated with a product that is being produced by slaves? Almost universally the answer is “no”.

HRAS: EJF was founded in 2000. What prompted did you start it?

Protecting the environment is more than conservation. It is about equity, securing a fairer future and justice for those who need it most. When all the fish have been taken illegally, what happens to the coastal communities and all those people dependent on the resources?

When we set the organization up, I think it was true to say that there were very few organisations or even individuals that were explicitly linking environmental security and human rights, and we saw there was a very clear need.

At the time, there was a predominance of western organizations that would fly in to save the day so to speak but all too often they left nothing behind. There are amazing organisations out there, so I’m not being unduly critical. I’m just highlighting what we saw, and I think to achieve enduring change there is a very real need to localize the solutions to issues as well as bringing outside scrutiny and attention. One is not exclusive of the other.

HRAS: In many cases, you say, it has been hard to quantify success. What keeps you going?

The world has changed hugely over the past 15 years, and I’m a professional optimist. I believe in the ability to change and secure positive development. I’m also a passionate believer in the idea that it’s better to light a candle than to rage against the darkness.

I think small acts can add up to relatively grand change, so I’d much rather try and engage than sit back and bemoan the problems. Anybody who’s lived in the world of campaigning and advocacy in the human rights or environmental sectors knows how hard it is to secure change that is durable, but it is possible and it’s very motivating when you see it happen.

HRAS: There’s a shadow image to the successes and that is the simple question that you have to pose implicitly which is what would have happened had nobody tried anything?

In Europe, EJF is part of a collaboration with WWF, Oceana and the Pew Charitable Trusts tackling the E.U.’s illegal fishing problems. In the past, you have also collaborated with Greenpeace and Oxfam. What plans do you have for future collaborations?

We will maintain our investigations, and we are one of the few groups that conduct investigations at sea as well as on land. We’ll also maintain our high level advocacy at ministerial level and our delivery of appropriate solutions.

Because the organization is specifically set up such that it doesn’t need to be a brand in its own right, we didn’t want to tie our ability to operate to brand awareness, we are able to collaborate with organizations quite efficiently and effectively. I’m very keen on collaboration, because there’s too many people who think they have the answer and almost always, whilst you can play a part, you can’t deliver the whole, so working collectively and leveraging different assets and skills is a valuable thing.

EJF’s evidence of illegal fishing in West Africa has prompted arrests and million in fines levied against pirate fishing vessels. The charity has secured action from the U.S. Department of State towards halting human trafficking, and its investigative work into cotton in Uzbekistan led to one of the world’s most repressive governments signing U.N. conventions to end forced labour. EJF has also helped secure a global ban on a deadly pesticide. It has protected wildlife and wild places, from turtles in Liberia, mangrove forests in Brazil to wetlands in Cambodia.

HRAS looks forward to collaborating with EJF in the future. Thank-you, Steve.

The HRAS Interview with Dean Summers of ITF Australia

Dean SummersSlave Ship; Death Ship; Summers Wants Change

In August 2015, ITF Australia coordinator, and fourth-generation seafarer, Dean Summers swum the English Channel to raise money for a charity that supports seafarers. HRAS spoke to him after this marathon effort to find out why he dedicates his life to seafarers’ well-being.

HRAS: What inspired you to swim the Channel?

It’s this strong emotional link to the seafaring fraternity that drives me in my career and my personal life. It’s a very natural fit to dedicate the efforts of the Channel swim towards the world’s 1.3 million seafarers, many of whom will traverse the Channel at some point in their lives. Theirs is a tough, lonely and thankless job, and they deserve more from a world that relies completely on their work. Continue reading The HRAS Interview with Dean Summers of ITF Australia