Editorial: End the trafficking and work abuses, or we will pay for it

Thailand's fishing industry has come under an unwanted spotlight over the past few weeks with two damning back-to-back reports about the use of forced labour from Myanmar and neighbouring countries.

The reports talked about the dire consequences should the government continue with business as usual and not do enough to clamp down on these illegal practices that effectively bloodies these export items.

"Was the fish you had for dinner caught by slaves?" asked the headline from The Christian Science Monitor, citing a report from the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) that documented widespread use of forced or captive labour in Thailand's multi-million-dollar fishing industry.

The United States is being pressed hard to do something about these abuses; in fact, it has been for years. For one thing, America is the number one buyer of Thai fish products. The 2011 figure showed Thai fishery exports to the US valued at $1.8 billion. The total industry is worth about $7.3 billion (Bt227 billion).

Another reason why the US is hard pressed to do something about this is that EJF is calling on Washington to downgrade Thailand in its annual US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which employs a three-tiered scale to classify all countries - in a bid to eliminate slavery around the world.

Given the two countries' close ties, lowering Thailand's status could be a difficult thing to do.

This is not to say that Thailand is unaware of these questionable and illegal practices at sea. The Thai government has consistently avoided inquiries into allegations of how Myanmar workers were beaten regularly, sold like slaves to other ships and even killed to avoid paying them salaries or intimidate crewmembers.

Perhaps the government doesn't want people to look into allegations that Thai authorities are in cahoots with industry bosses.

About a month after the EJF's "Sold to the Sea: Human Trafficking in Thailand's Fishing Industry" report was launched, the US State Department released its annual TIP report. It was another damning criticism that could translate into sanctions if the government doesn't do something about trafficking abuses promptly.

For years, the US has urged Thailand to take action. Thai law enforcers have vowed to act, but essentially just paid lip service and turned a blind eye to what the US report called "pervasive trafficking-related corruption".

For the past four years, the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report has given Thailand its second-worst ranking. Bangkok narrowly dodged the worst rank (Tier 3) because Secretary of State John Kerry stepped in and pardoned the country, after a plea for leniency from the Thai foreign minister. But we have now reached the limit on the number of waivers possible. That means Thailand has one more year to prove it will convict human traffickers and rogue employers, who have operated with virtual impunity for years. We have to do something about an awful situation.

Getting the lowest rank would mean the US would have to comply by its own law that calls for targeted sanctions by cutting "non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance". This year's State Department report, released last week, labelled Thailand as a dismal failure.

Government leaders and fishing industry chiefs need to realise that they have moral obligations to all people - consumers, domestic and foreign, as well as our neighbours, when many abused workers come from. We need to go beyond the legal and diplomatic requirements and take this matter very seriously. The Thai fishing industry and other sectors using migrant labour have acquired a dreadful reputation for gross abuse of foreign workers. If the government fails to act this year, unfettered access to the world's biggest market will be in grave danger.