WASHINGTON (AP) — Fourteen years after the U.S. first criticized Thailand for labor abuse in its annual trafficking report, seafood caught by slaves on Thai boats is still slipping into the supply chains of major American stores and supermarkets.
The U.S. has not enforced its own law banning the import of goods made with forced labor since 2000 because of significant loopholes, The Associated Press has found. It has also spared Thailand from sanctions slapped on other countries with similar records because of a complex political relationship that includes cooperation against terrorism.
The question of how to deal with Thailand and labor abuse will come up at a congressional hearing Wednesday, in light of an AP investigation that found hundreds of men beaten, starved, forced to work with little or no pay and even held in a cage on the remote island village of Benjina. While officials at federal agencies would not directly answer why the law and sanctions are not applied, they pointed out that the U.S. State Department last year blacklisted Thailand as among the worst offenders in its report on trafficking in people worldwide.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said the plight of about 4,000 forced laborers in Thailand's seafood industry can no longer go unheeded. Many are migrant workers from Myanmar and other countries who were forced to work on Thai boats in Indonesian waters.
"No one can claim ignorance anymore," Robertson said. "This is a test case for Washington as much as Bangkok."
Hlaing Min, an escaped migrant fisherman, begged the U.S. for help.
"Basically, we are slaves — and slavery is the only word that I can find — but our condition is worse than slavery," he said. "On behalf of all the fishermen here, I request to the congressmen that the U.S. stop buying all fish from Thailand. ... This fish, we caught it with our blood and sweat, but we don't get a single benefit from it."
While U.S. seafood companies strongly condemn labor abuse, some say cutting off all imports from an entire country takes away their power to change anything. And the Thai government says it is taking steps to solve the problem, including the creation of a new registry for migrant workers and increased punishment for traffickers.
The U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 gives Customs and Border Protection the authority to seize shipments where forced labor is suspected and block further imports. However, it has been used only 39 times in 85 years. In 11 cases, the orders detaining shipments were later revoked.
The most recent case dates back to 2000, when Customs stopped clothing from a Mongolian firm. The order was revoked in 2001, after further review found labor abuse was no longer a problem at the company.
To start an investigation, Customs needs to receive a petition from anyone — a business, an agency, even a non-citizen — showing "reasonably but not conclusively" that imports were made at least in part with forced labor. But spokesman Michael Friel said that in the last four years, Customs has received "only a handful of petitions," and none on seafood from Thailand.
Experts also point to two gaping loopholes. Goods made with forced labor must be allowed into the U.S. if consumer demand cannot be met without them. And it's hard, if not impossible, to prove fish in a particular container is tainted, because different batches generally mix together at processing plants.
Also, former Justice Department attorney Jim Rubin said, Customs can't stop trafficked goods without the help of other federal agencies to investigate overseas.
"You can't expect a Customs guy at the border to know that a can of salmon caught on the high seas was brought in by a slave," he said.
Apart from the law, the U.S. response to Thailand is shaped by political considerations.
Last year, after several waivers, the State Department dropped the Southeast Asian nation for the first time to the lowest rank in its trafficking report, mentioning forced labor in the seafood industry. Countries with the same ranking, such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, faced full or partial sanctions. But Thailand did not, receiving $18.5 million in aid from U.S. taxpayers last year.
"If Thailand was North Korea or Iran, they'd be treated differently," said Josh Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They're a key ally and we have a long relationship with them."
The U.S. has already suspended $4.7 million in military funding to Thailand because of a military coup last year. However, the country is still considered a critical ally against terrorism. A U.S. Senate report in December detailed how top al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, slammed into a wall and isolated at a secret safe house in Thailand as part of CIA interrogations in 2002. And in 2003, a senior al-Qaida operative was arrested outside Bangkok.
The U.S. also wants strong relations with Thailand as a counterweight to the growing influence of China, and has accepted its claims to be addressing labor abuse. And the Labor Department, which flags seafood from Thailand every year as produced by forced labor, began talks for an action plan in the fall.
Thailand deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the government "is determined and committed to solving the human trafficking issues, not by words but by actions."
In the meantime, migrant fishermen rescued from Benjina are bewildered to learn that their abuse has been an open secret for years. Maung Htwe did backbreaking work for Thai captains in Indonesian waters over seven years, earning less than $5 a day, if he was lucky.
"Sometimes I'm really angry. It's so painful. Why was I sold and taken to Indonesia?" asked Htwe. "If people already knew the story, then they should have helped us and taken action."
AP reporter Thanyarat Doksone contributed from Thailand.