A new U.N. treaty punishing perpetrators of forced labor passed Wednesday in a meeting of the 185 nations that comprise the International Labor Organization (ILO). While a handful of Gulf states abstained, only one nation voted against the measure to stop modern slavery: Thailand’s new military regime.
The treaty requires signatory nations to identify and release victims of forced labor, provide them with access to compensation, and punish those who benefit from the underground trade, which produces $150 billion in illegal profits annually and enslaves an estimated 21 million people worldwide. In Thailand, forced labor underpins the seafood industry, which accounts for much of the country’s recent GDP growth. While human rights groups have drawn attention to the issue before, the Guardian exposed the scope of the problem in a profile of Thailand’s forced labor crisis published Tuesday.
Up to 500,000 slaves are believed to be working within Thai borders, the majority of whom are migrants pressured into forced labor with threats of deportation, torture, or death. Enslaved laborers on Thai ships frequently report working 18-22 hour long days, and a 2009 report by the U.N. reveals that 59 percent have witnessed captains murder a fellow worker. The international outcry sparked by the findings prompted leading seafood retailers such as Walmart, Tesco and Costco to announce that they are making efforts to end forced labor. However, the firms also suggest they were previously aware of the problem, raising suspicions that forced labor in the seafood industry amounts to an open secret.
The government of Thailand has often worked to aid the system of forced labor. The department of fisheries fails to take the problem of unregistered boats seriously, which allows captains to get away with enslaving workers on board and Thai politicians are notoriously lax about regulations that require captains to register foreign members of the crew, exacerbating the problem of human trafficking. Thai law also prevents the Thai Royal Marine from patrolling more than 12 miles off the coast, where much of the forced labor fishing occurs.
“The government knows in Thailand that there’s a problem but they’re not taking action,” Mark Lagon, a former ambassador in charge of monitoring human trafficking, told the Guardian. “There is no connectivity between labor inspectors and law enforcement to hold traffickers to account. And, actually, the government is all too often complicit with corruption.” One Thai businessman involved in trafficking even described politicians and brokers, who sell migrants into forced labor, as “business partners.”
Just over three weeks ago, military leaders in Thailand seized control of the state and swiftly imposed martial law, dissolved the government and suspended elections indefinitely. The coup closely followed a move by Thailand’s constitutional court weeks before to expel populist prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, on charges of corruption. Supporters of the junta claim that overthrow of the old government was necessary to maintain law and order in the deeply polarized nation, which is increasingly split between the rural poor and an urban, middle class and upper class. Opponents of the new regime, including the largely rural, working class Red Shirts, claim the coup is a power grab by urban elites.
Either way, the military rule has led to hundreds of arbitrary arrests as well as silencing of the press. Those who speak out against the military for putting an end to democracy face trial in military courts and forced disappearances to secret camps, driving Human Rights Watch to conclude that “military rule has thrown Thailand’s rights situation into a free fall.”
The U.S. has also voiced concern about the disintegration of democracy in Thailand, suspending one-third of its military aid to Thailand and recently threatening to impose economic sanctions if Thailand does not address the practice of slavery in Thailand’s prawn trade.
The military government’s staunch refusal to sign the U.N. treaty suggests that it may risk facing punishing economic sanctions rather than joining with the international community in taking steps to end forced labor. However, a few signs are promising, such as the regime’s creation of a sub-committee to address issues involving foreign labor, and organizing training sessions for police on stopping human trafficking.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress