Labor groups: US right to keep pressure on Thailand for human trafficking change

US gov’t: Thai human trafficking crackdown came too late for upgrade from Tier 3

After responding to an ad for fishermen in Saudi Arabia, 20 Pakistani men had their passports taken away during a stop in Dubai and were instead forced to work without pay for a fishing company in Somalia. Twelve made it home only after surreptitiously organizing a rescue mission through a nongovernmental organization.

In the Philippines, a recruiter led 26 fishermen to expect well-paying jobs on a neighboring island. Instead, their traffickers didn’t pay them anything, charged them for room and board, forced them to fish illegally and physically abused them if they did not meet quotas. They were released after two months. The recruiter and a fish trader face charges, but the owner of the vessels remains at large.

These accounts are from a 380 page report on human trafficking released Monday by the US Department of State. It shows forced labor and sexual exploitation are far-reaching problems across many nations and industries, including the global seafood sector.

Thailand, a major US shrimp supplier where the state department says labor trafficking victims are exploited in commercial fishing, remained at “Tier 3″, a ranking US officials assign to nations who’s governments they say don’t fully comply with minimum standards in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and aren’t making significant efforts to do so.

Thailand’s embassy on Monday said it “disagrees with the State Department’s evaluation in the report, which does not accurately reflect the reality and fails to take into account significant efforts undertaken by the Thai government on all fronts during the past year”.

Major US and European seafood suppliers Indonesia and Vietnam remained at the “Tier 2” level, indicating they don’t fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to do so. A smaller US and European seafood supplier, Malaysia, was controversially upgraded to the second rung of Tier 2 status, a watch list. The State Department notes forced labor links involving each of these nations’ fishing industries.

Although media investigations have highlighted slave labor in the Thai and Indonesian fishing sectors, the State Department report shows human trafficking in the seafood industry is not just confined to Southeast Asia.

The Marshal Islands, which sells fishing rights to other nations and whose waters are a key source of bigeye tuna for the United States, was downgraded to Tier 3 from its spot on the Tier 2 watch list last year.

Foreign business owners recruit girls from the island nation to engage in prostitution with crew members of foreign fishing and transshipping vessels that dock in Majuro, the State Department report said.

Foreign women living in the nation as long-term residents have been forced into prostitution in establishments patronized by crew members of Chinese and other foreign fishing boats, the report said.

Some Chinese women are lured with promises of legitimate work, but they end up paying recruitment fees being forced into prostitution, the report said.

In 2014, the United States imported 862 metric tons of fresh bigeye tuna worth $2.7m from the Marshall Island, according to National Marine Fisheries Service data.

In Belize, which was also downgraded to Tier 3, the report said that foreign men, women and children, often from Central America, Mexico and Asia, may fall victim to forced labor in fishing, restaurants, shops and agriculture.

“Trafficking-related complicity by government officials, including allegations of involvement of high-level officials, remains a problem,” the report said.

In Burundi, another Tier 3 downgrade, children and young adults are coerced into forced labor in the fishing industry as well as on farms and mines or in construction, the report said.

On the Island of Anjouan in Comoros, another nation downgraded to Tier 3, the report said that children are subjected to forced labor in fishing, baking, agriculture, domestic service, and vending along roads or in markets.

In one bright spot, the report upgraded Papua New Guinea, which sells access to its tuna fishery to foreign vessels and whose waters are a source of skipjack and yellowfin tuna, to its Tier 2 watch list from Tier 3 status last year.

There, Malaysian and Chinese logging companies and foreign businesspeople arrange for women from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, China and the Philippines to voluntarily enter Papua New Guinea on fraudulently issued visas.

They are then turned over to traffickers and forced into prostitution and domestic servitude in fisheries, logging and mining camps and entertainment sites.

But the State Department said the government there is making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, including by establishing a new anti-trafficking training program for front-line officers and judiciaries, creating an anti-trafficking committee and drafting a national action plan to combat trafficking.