Air Force planes rescuing fishermen from forced slavery is impressive, but human trafficking is not being tackled at its roots
It was good to see the government dispatch aircraft to bring home 68 Thai fishery workers from Indonesia last week, raising to around 250 the retrieval of Thais believed to have been forced to work on trawlers, while some 150 were still waiting for a flight back to their own country.
However, this should not be the end of the story of combating the chronic problem of human trafficking in the fishery sector, and it is hoped that the Royal Thai Air Force C-130s are not just vehicles of propaganda for the benefit of foreign critics.
The government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced early this month that combating human trafficking was on the national agenda and that it was mobilising all concerned agencies to tackle the problem. The motive was to send a message to the international community, notably the United States, which is considering Thailand's rating in the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, and the European Union, which is concerned with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishery.
Rescuing hundreds of forced labourers from Thai trawlers and some other measures mapped out by the Thai authorities such as port checks and establishing a GPS (Global Positioning System) surveillance are not enough to solve all the problems in the fishery sector and others concerning human trafficking.
Human trafficking in the fishery sector is not confined to this particular group forced to work on trawlers and found on Indonesian islands. The issue is more complex.
One recent report said over 90 per cent of workers on Thai fishing boats have no contract; they are basically unregulated.
TheInternational Labour Organisation said in a 2013 report into the Thai fishing industry, done with Chulalongkorn's Asian Research Centre into Migration, that 17 per cent of 596 fishers interviewed the previous year worked against their will and 17 per cent were threatened with penalties or violence.
The problem is it is very hard for them to get protection while working at sea. Many have been severely beaten, and reports of murders - crewmen killed and their bodies dumped into the sea - are rampant.
However, such problems have been known for long time, and are not just happening to Thai workers on Thai fishery trawlers, but also people from Myanmar, Cambodia and other countries in this region on Thai-registered ships. More important, Thai trawlers no longer ply only Thai seas but work throughout the region.
It seems that those involved in maritime fishing are partly, if not totally, in grey areas - sailing an ocean out of the reach of national laws.
For example, in Indonesia where these Thai fishermen worked, the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Union said a mafia ruled that country's fishery sector, making it difficult to curb illegal fishing. The masterminds behind illegal fishing control national and foreign firms, the bureaucracy and law-enforcement agencies, it said. Mafia involvement was evident in slavery practices in Benjina in the Aru Islands, Maluku, it said.
The strategies and measures laid out by the Thai government are not all wrong, but they are not comprehensive enough to cope with the size of the problem in the fishery industry.
Prayut said when he announced the national agenda on combating human trafficking that all agencies such as the Interior Ministry, the Labour Department, fishery authorities, the police and other security organisations, as well as the Foreign Ministry, must not lower their guard. Government officials involved in facilitating human trafficking must also be punished, he said.
But these measures reflect an inward-looking approach. The government still has no plan on how to work with Myanmar, where some workers come from, and Indonesia, where much of the fishing takes place.
It is also important to look at the demand side. A responsible market would help contribute to the solution. The government has not yet told consumers and the seafood-processing industry to reject raw materials procured through forced and labour on the seas.