Thailand's Human Trafficking Record

Sam Hargadine, ContributorLast Modified: 14:48 p.m. EDT, 7 March 2013

Crying Girl, Photo by London Street ArtBANGKOK - Thailand and America are bracing for an awkward situation. In June, the US State Department will release its annual human trafficking report. In this year's release it is widely believed that Thailand may be relegated to the 3rd tier watch list. In other words, the worst of the worst.

Thailand's economy and civil society is a leader in the region. It is the United States' strongest ally in mainland Southeast Asia and in many ways does not deserve to be on the same list as Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, or Zimbabwe.

But there are two Thailands. One: the shimmering lights of Bangkok and the beautiful beaches and rice fields. The other: where two million legal immigrants and another few million illegal ones toil away in harsh labor conditions; keeping the Thai export economy afloat.

A report from The Economist looked at the Thai shrimp industry, worth roughly $1 billion a year. In the Samut Sakhon province, shrimp-peeling outfits have been observed physically abusing workers, denying pay, and confiscating workers' international paperwork. The State Department asserts that in Samut Sakhon, "nearly three-fifths of workers experience conditions of forced labor."

Relegation with respect to Thailand's standing in the State Department report would bring about automatic sanctions from the United States. However there are several ways Thailand and America can reach a mutually satisfactory arrangement for the current year to avoid such a measure.

Despite current conditions, there are vast incentives for the Thai and American governments to avoid the public loss of face such a downgrade would bring. After all, both governments want to have friendly relations.

Thailand is currently trying to attack the enabling environment it hosts by enforcing a 2008 law against human trafficking. Instituting penalties for police who tip off shrimp boat owners prior to inspection for instance would be a good start. Also the Thai government is encouraging illegal immigrants to now get temporary papers and be properly registered - without the immediate fear of deportation (a quasi-guest worker program). Laborers who are properly registered are then entitled to a daily minimum wage of $10/day, a strong incentive to self-register.

Only June will tell which way the report will go. However it is unlikely either party, America or Thailand, will let this impasse continue. Perhaps though, for as long as real improvements come for Thailand's most vulnerable, that is a welcome result.

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