Thailand's General Prayuth Chan-ocha has appointed himself head of a last-ditch effort to reverse the nation’s record on abusing migrant workers before annual international trafficking rankings are compiled.
Last week, the Thai prime minister launched new initiatives and committees explicitly targeted at appeasing the US government, which last year relegated Thailand to the lowest possible ranking on its Trafficking in Persons report. The bruising downgrade was largely attributed to abuses of foreign labourers, especially men from Cambodia and Myanmar forced to crew notoriously exploitative fishing vessels.
In his latest attempts to address the damning report, General Prayuth elected himself head of anti-human trafficking and illegal fishing policies, which will watch over various subcommittees overseeing fishing crews, migrant workers and child labour. The subcommittees will report achievements next month before compiling updates for the US, Thai government media said.
As part of the stepped up efforts, Prayuth also announced enhanced regulations of the $8 billion-a-year seafood industry, including a new registry of trawlers and their mostly undocumented migrant crews.
Chronic shortages in the underpaying and brutal sector have resulted in an illicit supply of an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
Thailand has long been criticised – including in the trafficking report – for addressing the exploitation of its foreign labourers with a string of unmet promises and policies never implemented, a problem Prayuth acknowledged.
“We have taken several measures in the past but they have yet to be completed. We need to improve on both efficiency and legal issues,” Prayuth said.
But rights advocates continued to doubt the commitment behind Thailand’s rhetoric.
“Governments in neighbouring countries whose nationals are often the victims of trafficking in Thailand should insist on real action from Bangkok, not just more words and re-shuffling chairs in government committees,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division.
But earlier this month, Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, admitted that in terms of demanding or even collaborating on immigration reforms, “Cambodia is always running behind Thailand”.
The substance of the overhauls has not inspired much confidence, however.
In October, Thailand promised to regularly inspect its fishing vessels, an agenda item rights’ workers attest hasn’t occurred.
“We’ll have to wait and see the new detailed plan,” said Moeun Tola, labour program coordinator at the Community Legal Education Centre. “For now, we see the bad situation for Cambodian migrants still stays the same.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THE BANGKOK POST