Shrimp and other seafood fishing is a big business in
Thailand. The industry employs more than 650,000 people and annually produces
more than $7 billion in exports that show up on dinner tables all over the
world, including in the United States. It also has a horrific dark side. Its
reliance on slave labor is so pervasive and ugly that the State Department now
lists Thailand as one of the worst violators among 188 countries judged every
year on how they deal with human trafficking.
The ratings were begun 14 years ago, after the United States enacted an
anti-trafficking law and the United Nations adopted the Palermo Protocol. Both
call for countries to criminalize trafficking, punish offenders and provide
shelter and support to victims. The State Department’s annual human trafficking
report, released on Friday, is an important part of this effort, systematically
chronicling abuses and government efforts to stop them.
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Thailand has long been a magnet for migrants from neighboring countries. These
migrants now number two to three million people. Tens of thousands of them are
victims of trafficking — vulnerable men, women and children, some forced into
the Thai sex trade, others pushed into garment manufacturing and domestic work.
Now comes growing evidence that many are also being exploited in fishing and
According to the 432-page report, men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand are
forced to work on Thai fishing boats that travel throughout Southeast Asia and
beyond. Many pay brokers to help them find work in Thailand, and are then sold
to shipowners. Under threat of jail or deportation and desperate for income,
they are forced to work 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for very low
wages, and are often threatened and beaten. The exact scope of this abuse is
unknown but the report cited two surveys that suggested between 17 percent and
57 percent of the fishermen were treated this way.
The report builds on recent investigations by Reuters, the Environmental Justice
Foundation and The Guardian newspaper, which found that slavery is central to
the shrimp industry’s success. So is corruption. The State Department said Thai
civilian and military officials and the police profited from smuggling members
of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are fleeing oppression in Myanmar and
Bangladesh, into the country, holding them in detention centers and then selling
them to brokers and boat owners.
Thailand is a treaty ally of the United States. For two years, the department
placed Thailand on a watch list, signifying dissatisfaction with its inaction on
human trafficking. Last week, it finally listed Thailand among the worst
violators of the standards set in American law, in part because “the government
demonstrated few efforts to address these trafficking crimes.” Malaysia and
Venezuela also made the worst list for the first time. There are 20 other
countries in this bottom category, including North Korea, Iran and Russia. The
United States and 30 other countries in the top category are considered
compliant with the standards; the rest are somewhere in between.
The revelations about Thailand should persuade major global corporations,
including Costco, Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco, that their business models have
to change. They should refuse to import from fishermen or companies that have
been reliably identified by watchdog groups as using slave labor. They also need
to pressure the Thai government to ensure that abusers who hire trafficked
employees are prosecuted and that the victims are protected and treated with
Under American law, aid and other assistance can be withheld if countries do not
crack down on trafficking; Washington should not hesitate to use this tool when
it can be effective. Consumers have a role to play, too, by refusing to purchase
products produced with slave labor.
The saddest part is that Thailand is only one slice of the problem. Slave labor
has also been documented on ships flying the flags of Taiwan, South Korea and
Hong Kong, among others. It is estimated that there could be 29 million victims
of all sorts of human trafficking around the globe, including thousands in the
There has been progress over the past 14 years in raising awareness of the
problem and in dealing with it, but as the State Department report all too
painfully shows, there is still a long way to go.
A version of this editorial appears in print on June 22, 2014,
on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: