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 

 

The HRAS Interview with Abby McGill: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand

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HRAS Interview: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand

It is promising that the Thai government and big industry players like Costco are getting involved in the fight against human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry, but there is more work to be done. For Abby McGill, that work focus is on empowering Thailand’s migrant workers.

McGill is responsible for coordinating campaigns around labor exploitation in globally-traded agricultural commodities at the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). Her work includes seafood from Thailand, cotton from Uzbekistan, palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia, Cocoa from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and tobacco from Malawi.

 

What is ILRF’s approach to dealing with labor exploitation?

We have a three tiered philosophy here at ILRF. First is worker empowerment. I partner with organizations on the ground to improve conditions by ensuring that the workers themselves have voice and that there’s democratic workplace principals being instilled in places that ultimately provide goods for Western markets.

The second is government change. We work to ensure that governments in countries that produce goods for global markets have good labor laws and that those laws are enforced. Additionally, we work to ensure that laws in countries like that U.S., or Australia or the E.U., where these goods are ultimately found, also promote good global trade that focuses on rights promotion rather than an extraction model of global commerce.

The last big part of change is industry. Here we try to hold companies accountable for what happens all along their supply chain, not only in the facilities over which they have direct control, and to promote greater transparency and accountability within long, complex global supply chains.

 

When you talk about the supply chain of companies are you meaning any size company or big multinationals?

We tend to focus on big multinationals, mostly because that’s an area where you can get a lot of change. What we see now in global markets is that the old relationship of somebody produces a good and goes to market to see how much they can get for it has been flipped on its head. The big multinational companies, the Walmarts and Tescos of the world, have cornered the market on retail sales to the extent that they are effectively setting prices for producers. The big purchasers of seafood, for example, at the big seafood expos in Boston, Hong Kong, Brussels dictate prices on the trading floor saying that you have to meet certain price points otherwise we won’t purchase it.

We advocate for a different approach where retailers and the big multinationals make long term strategic partnerships with their suppliers so that the supplier knows that three or four years down the line they’re still going to have demands for this product, that they can create some security for their workers, and that they’re able to convey to their customers, the big multinational brands, what it actually costs to produce this good in a way that has safe and decent working conditions for the workers who produce it.

 

Why do migrant workers need more empowerment?

There’s three to four million migrant workers in Thailand. Many of them are undocumented. Fewer now that Thailand has made pretty impressive strides in registering migrant workers. However, that registration process itself is quite expensive. Whether you go through the formal channels or informal recruitment channels, workers often have to take on a lot of debt.

Under Thai law migrant workers are bound to their employers. It’s very difficult to leave an employer, even if there’s abuse there, and still remain in the country legally. The incentive is really for workers to keep quiet if there are problems because they arrive in debt, they need to pay it off and they can’t leave their employer and continue to work in the country.

 

What is ILRF doing in Thailand?

We try to highlight problems like that and try to organize coalitions of organizations to demand for solutions. We partner with an organization on the ground called the Migrant Workers Rights Network which is an organization of migrant workers in Thailand trying to improve conditions.

We have brought together a group of organizations under the name Thai Seafood Working Group. When I started that project in early 2014, it was about a dozen organizations mostly based in the U.S. that we had assembled through other work we’d done, mostly on the child labor coalition in the cotton groups that were interested in human rights.

Now the working group is more than 50 organizations from about a dozen countries that aren’t just human rights organizations. There’s a lot of environmental groups that participate and a lot of seafood groups.

A big focus for us is the lack of freedom of association for migrant workers. Right now they’re forbidden from serving in the leadership of or forming trade unions. They can join already existing unions, but there are so few of those because Thai’s don’t work in the seafood industry. So, in essence, migrant workers are completely unrepresented. It keeps them isolated, it keeps them vulnerable, and it keeps them exploitable.

We fight hard to try and ensure that migrant workers have access to all of the fundamental rights at work in their workplace, including freedom of association.

 

Do the Walmarts of the world feature in improving practices in the industry?

Walmart has a few different initiatives going on in the Thai seafood sector. When big companies get involved their interventions often involve a lot of certification and auditing, but those aren’t solutions that actually empower the workers themselves. It’s somebody coming from outside to look at what’s happening in the supply chain, not developing the power from within for workers to hold their employers accountable.

There are a lot of industry solutions that are having various impacts. Some good and some not so good but the ultimate judge by what we would measure an effective intervention is does it help the workers themselves to be able to address problems in their workplaces without a third party having to be there.

One of the models that we’re trying to promote not only in seafood but in all commodities is retailers and multinational corporations should have to publish where they get the goods that are produced. They should list names of suppliers. The garment sector has had the biggest success with this. That would be the kind of traceability that I would hope for.

 

Is it just the shrimp industry that has problems or are there other Thai seafood industries that are of concern?

Thailand is one of the major processors of canned tuna in the world. The Thai fleet itself doesn’t actually catch much tuna. Rather, Thailand is one of the biggest importers of tuna, from countries such as Taiwan or South Korea, and then they export it. So, Thailand becomes a choke point for abuses on the tuna fleets of a lot of different countries.

We encourage the major tuna companies, like Tuna Union, to name their suppliers and to push down to their suppliers the importance of having complete catch certification from the vessel and the processing level so that consumers can know where the tuna in their can ultimately came from.

Another industry is pet food. Thailand’s a huge exporter of pet food to the U.S., Europe and Australia. Pet food is a hundred billion dollar industry across these countries, and a lot of different kinds of proteins go into it. Trash fish definitely goes into it. Other kinds of fish that are caught by Thai vessels go into it. Poultry also goes into it, and there’s horrendous cases of human trafficking coming out of Thailand’s poultry sector.

 

What is the Thai government achieving?

The Thai government is certainly interested in showing that it has made demonstrable progress on the issues. They have really clamped down a lot on fisheries oversight. Our assessment of those efforts is that they have focused primarily on illegal fishing and much less on the people that are on the boats.

They’ve also made some positive changes to seafood workers. For example there is a temporary provision that migrant workers in the seafood sector can change employers. They have a lot more freedom of movement in that sector which is something that we would hope that they would expand to migrant workers in all sectors.

Where we haven’t seen a lot of progress is on overall labor rights. They haven’t made significant steps towards ensuring that migrant workers are able to form their own labor unions, that they have access to remedy when employers abuse them.

One really disturbing step backwards that we are concerned about is the use of criminal defamation. Not only has Thailand made it hard for migrant workers to report when they have been abused, but they’ve made it more likely that migrant workers will be taken to court for speaking out. They can be charged with criminal defamation if they complain about an employer.

Thai law allows it and Thai prosecutors have taken it forward. The Thai government will say that it’s the Thai judicial system and we don’t want to interfere. We certainly respect that, but the fact that they allow criminal defamation to remain on the books when it’s almost exclusively used against these human rights offenders and human rights cases is unacceptable. They need to repeal criminal defamation immediately.

 

Have you been to Thailand and spoken with the foreign workers?

I’ve been to Thailand on a number of occasions, and I have spoken with workers every time. These workers are really far from home, they often don’t speak Thai very well, so they don’t have a lot of resources to be able to navigate Thai legal systems. They’re working in a 3D job: a dangerous, dirty and demeaning job. Most of them don’t have a lot of education, so there’s a lot of barriers to them organizing unions. The way that Thai law stacks the books against them in favor of the employers just makes it that much harder.

I am constantly in awe of our partners on the ground who stand up, and who speak out, and who are fighting for improved conditions. I think that what they have going for them is that they’re a pretty tight knit community. They tend to live all together, they look out for each other, and their immediate instinct when things are wrong is to come together and try to make things right.

However, I think that is incumbent on those in the international community who are consuming the goods that these workers produce to do everything within our power to ensure that we are supporting those efforts.

 

Do the men out on the fishing boats have that sense of community?

They are much more isolated, so that is harder for them. That’s why we see some of the really most egregious problems happening particularly on long haul vessels. At least for short haul vessels, those that only go out for maybe a day or a few fays at most, they largely live in the fishing communities that surround their ports. There is some sort of camaraderie there. The long haul vessels really, really are problematic.

We have a project that’s funded by USAID to try and break a little bit of that isolation. There has been a push to get satellite technology on board vessels to better document catches. A lot of that involves satellite monitoring of vessels through VMS, AIS, and other kinds of vessel monitoring systems.

We’re trying to ensure that those systems aren’t used just to monitor the fish. We’d like to see them used to get greater insight into what’s happening with the workers on those vessels and to document working conditions. We need to make sure that as the illegal fishing piece of it moves forward the human rights piece of it isn’t out of the equation, that the two are developing side by side.

 

What’s on your agenda for this year?

We are focusing on elimination of criminal defamation and promoting greater freedom of association rights for migrant workers.

Industry wide I think there’s some kind of interesting things going on. Greenpeace released a report at the very end of last year on the Thai fishing fleet that has prompted Nestle, a big global brand, to try and ban the practice of transshipment, a practice that, from our perspective, can lead to workers being trapped out at sea for very long periods of time.

For a long time industry has pushed back to say that transhipment is simply a part of doing business in the seafood sector given the current stocks of fish, but if Nestle can say that it’s going to ban transhipment it seems that other companies should be able to do it too. I think we’re going to be pushing really hard on this to ensure greater catch accountability and transparency.

Also, the Thai government is working with the International Labor Organization and with other actors to try to improve their labor oversight within the fishing sector. We’re going to continue to push to ensure that the work includes migrant worker empowerment.

 

Thank-you Abby.