BANGKOK - Reports of forced labour in Thailand have drawn little attention from most Thais, though they have become a focus for the international community, led by the US.
This week, the US State Department will unveil its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, and the widespread expectation is that Thailand - which has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for the past four years for poor law enforcement - will be dropped to the lowest rung, Tier 3, joining the likes of Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe.
The downgrade would likely trigger sanctions against Thailand, which could include the withholding or withdrawal of US non-humanitarian and non-trade-related assistance. Thailand could also face US opposition to assistance from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
"Thailand is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking," said the report in 2013. "A significant portion of labour trafficking victims within Thailand are exploited in commercial fishing, fishing-related industries, low-end garment production, factories, and domestic work, and some are forced to beg on the streets."
The report is considered the US government's principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on the issue of human trafficking. It is also the world's most comprehensive government-level effort against human trafficking and reflects Washington's commitment to global leadership on this key human rights and law enforcement issue.
A Tier 1 ranking does not mean a clean bill of health, but rather indicates a government's acknowledgement of and efforts to address its problems through compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act's (TVPA) minimum standards.
Tier 2 countries are not in compliance with TVPA minimum standards but are making significant efforts. Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List are making efforts to meet the minimum standards but, with a significant number of trafficked victims, are failing to prove they are increasing efforts year on year. Tier 3 countries are not complying and making no significant efforts to do so.
So why is Thailand's ranking set to hit rock-bottom this year?
Comparatively, Thailand is not much worse than its neighbours in the ASEAN bloc. Among the 10 nations, only Brunei and Vietnam have improved in the rankings over the past three years. Cambodia was also relegated to the Tier 2 Watch List last year. Thailand is on a par with Malaysia, which has been on the watch list for the past few years.
All past Thai governments have vehemently declared their efforts to tighten laws against trafficking laws. In early May, members of a Thai delegation sought to convince US officials that Thailand should be upgraded to Tier 1 as reward for its significant efforts over the past year.
They cited court cases against 483 alleged traffickers launched by Thai prosecutors in 2013, resulting in 225 convictions.
That information looks convincing, but the Obama administration's decision will also be influenced by other evidence.
An activist recently revealed that the previous Thai government had considered deporting him for his efforts to battle forced labour in the seafood industry.
Despite laws against the practice, a large number of people have been trafficked to Thailand over the past year, including thousands of Myanmar citizens plus hundreds thought to be Chinese Uighurs.
Last week, the Guardian accused Charoen Pokphand foods of buying fishmeal for its prawns from suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats that are said to use slave labour.
Soon after, the Thai junta vetoed the UN treaty on forced labour, making Thailand the only country to oppose international efforts to reduce trafficking.
A few days later, it changed its mind and ratified the treaty. That change came after it launched a campaign against illegal migrant workers. While that campaign has ignited rumours that soldiers would shoot the illegal workers on sight, it might persuade the US government that Thailand is serious this time. In the past, scepticism has been fuelled by widespread reports of corruption among Thai officials lured by huge rewards for rubber-stamping transport papers or other documentation.
In April, US lawmakers called on the Obama administration to punish countries that do too little to fight human trafficking, including Thailand and Malaysia, adding that Myanmar should not be allowed to evade possible sanctions over its record.
Whatever the verdict of the trafficking report, it's time that all Thais paid more attention to this issue. Though second-largest in ASEAN, Thailand's economy is small compared with, say, China's. It is thus obvious that we remain dependent on external support.
Likely influenced by the Guardian report, Carrefour has suspended its purchase of prawns from CPF. And that's just a taste of will happen if Thailand's ranking drops to Tier 3 in the TIP report. It might take some time for the ramifications to sink in here, but sooner or later Thais will feel the pain of showing no mercy to non-Thais.