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Slavery in the fishing industry

June 18, 2011

A new focus on human misery

Mention human trafficking and most people will immediately think of the horrors of the sex trade. That is understandable because the exploitation of women and children are rarely out of the headlines, making this an issue of deep concern. But a recent surge in slavery cases involving men as the prime victims, has highlighted the need for anti-trafficking agencies to smash criminal gangs illegally exploiting cheap labour.

The fact that young men are trafficked into slavery in the fishing industry and condemned to spend months at sea in appalling conditions, is not new. This has been well documented by the International Labour Organisation, and Mahidol and Chulalongkorn universities. It is the increased scale of this exploitation that is causing alarm. And although police intensified their operations against traffickers in Suphan Buri and Ayutthaya this week and made arrests, some criminal gang members slipped through the net.

A ground-breaking report just released by the aid and development group World Vision International, attempts to counter the common perception that human trafficking is all about the sex trade, as it was in the mid-90s. It found that, in global terms, for every person coerced into the sex trade in the lower Mekong region, nine are forced into work. Youths _ primarily from Burma, Cambodia and Laos _ make up the vast majority of people trafficked into the fishing industry here and in Malaysia. Other victims are illegally sold into domestic service and the food processing industry.

All this is happening three years after our tough law to combat traffickers came into effect and extended its protection to those in danger of becoming victims of forced labour, prostitution, sexual abuse, or trade in human organs. It increased the punishment meted out to traffickers, spared victims from prosecution and concealed their identities. It also freed high-ranking police officers from having to obtain search warrants when actively in pursuit of suspected human traffickers.

So it would be encouraging to see police and public prosecutors making proper use of these powers and penalties. This country has long had to suffer the shame of being branded an international people trafficking hub because gangs illegally trading in sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and other forced labour activity are either based here or use the country as a transit route. Last year it was even upgraded on the US State Department’s human trafficking watch list, along with much of the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Collusion has long been suspected between the corrupt influential figures behind the trafficking and their equally corrupt law enforcement counterparts. Passage of the 2008 law was intended to dissolve such relationships, put the culprits in jail and make it clear that any tolerance that might have existed in the past was at an end. Clearly these goals have yet to be achieved, which does raise the question of why legislators bother to enact powerful laws when enforcement is so weak.

Despite the gradual change of tactics by traffickers, the sex trade still gains the most police attention. Brothels masquerading as karaoke bars have been raided this year in Prachin Buri and Suphan Buri provinces and at least 70 Lao girls freed from forced prostitution. The problem is that such cases rarely lead to a serious prosecution of those responsible, including the authorities who found it prudent to turn a blind eye.

So long as wrongdoers see themselves as immune from punishment, the evil of human trafficking, in all its forms, will remain a blight on our society.

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