Ending slavery in Thailand needs local solution and unions, activist says

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 27, 2016 1:26 PM

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The fight against slavery in Thailand's multibillion-dollar seafood industry will fail unless solutions are "localized" and workers are granted the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, a prominent British activist said.

Thailand's reputation has suffered in recent years after numerous investigations by news organizations and rights groups into human trafficking, slavery and violence in its seafood industry.

The country, which has been politically unstable for a decade and is currently under military rule, has vowed to crack down on human trafficking and slavery, and recently introduced reforms to its fisheries law.

But Steve Trent, founder and executive director of the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), said the EJF would keep its focus on Thailand until durable reforms were put in place that would not "disappear between transition governments".

"At the moment because Thailand's had all this attention, you'll find bilateral agencies focusing efforts there and international organizations heading toward Thailand to save the day," he said in a Skype interview from London on Monday.

"The reality is it's not going to be organizations like EJF that save the day. When I talk about localizing this, I'm serious - it has to be a Thai solution, otherwise it won't be durable."

Trent is one of the speakers at Trust Forum Asia, an event on Thursday in Singapore hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

EJF conducted an in-depth, three-year investigation into slavery on Thai fishing boats, uncovering a well-oiled system of trafficking, abuse and exploitation.

Trent said there had been positive changes, from a past when Thai officials issued flat denials, to the substantive talks he held earlier this month with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and senior government officials in Bangkok.

He highlighted in particular the reform of fisheries laws and the sophisticated vessel monitoring system that has been created to track Thai fishing vessels, a system he described as being "among the best in the world".

Yet he said law enforcement must be system-wide and consistent, and extend beyond Bangkok to the provinces where powerful individuals have their own personal fiefdoms.

Thailand must also introduce fundamental changes to its labor laws granting freedom of association for Thai and migrant labor communities, to allow for scrutiny of the laws, he said.

"Without that, I don't believe the changes implemented will be durable or consistent over time... Allow them to unionize and allow collective bargaining," Trent said, calling for more funds to be dedicated to Thai and migrant labor organizations.

"The money's there to do that. If the donors are sensible, that is where they should channel their efforts. I'm not trying to do my way out of any funding, but that's the promised, clear path."

(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)