Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thailand and Human Trafficking

In what was billed as the largest human-trafficking case ever brought by the US federal government, six contractors have been accused of a scheme to hold 400 Thai workers in virtual slavery on farms in Washington State and Hawaii.

The company in question, Global Horizons Manpower, has been accused of abusing the federal guest-worker programme by luring the Thai workers with false promises of steady work at decent pay but only to be met with awful working conditions that some said amounted to modern day slavery.

The workers reportedly took on huge debt - about Bt300,000 to Bt670,000 - to pay for the recruiting fee. According to the indictment, the workers, after arriving in America, were set up in shoddy housing. These Thai farmhands were told that if they complained or fled they would be arrested and/or deported. With that kind of debt, being fired is not an option. They will accept just about any abuse dished out to them.

While the indictment in the US should be cause for applause, back in Thailand we also need to do some serious soul searching over not only over how we allow such unfair and unjust recruitment processes to go unchecked but how we treat our foreign workers as well.

It has been estimated that there are over two million workers, virtually all unskilled, from Cambodia and Burma currently working in Thailand. Like the American consumers, we Thais want inexpensive and fresh produce, somebody to can our fish and peel our shrimp.

But we consume these goods with little consideration over the plight of the workers who make sure our dinner gets to the table on time.

Too often we see ourselves as doing them a favour, conveniently pointing to the state of the economies and working condition of their home countries. Such a selfish attitude has to end if we are to move forward as a responsible nation with a moral obligation to be fair to our foreign workers.

It is not uncommon to hear news reports about ridiculous restrictions placed on communities such as the Burmese. Some provincial officials won't even let them celebrate certain cultural activities for fear that they would be too comfortable in Thailand and never leave when their work permit runs out.

Let's not forget that it was their inexpensive, back-breaking labour that helped Thailand climb the global economic ladder and become a regional hub in various industries.

Moreover, let's not forget our own people - namely the people from the poor Northeast - and the conditions that they have to put up with in order to better their lot. It is not uncommon to see shabby makeshift housing at various construction sites.

Like many places, there is a tendency in Thailand to associate unskilled labour as something that is undignified. But then again, where is our own humanity when we knowingly permit this unfair system to continue while we either turn a blind eye or remain indifferent to the plight of our fellow human beings. Mutual respect works both ways.

Humanitarian aspects aside, there are also other ways of looking at the problem, at least in the structural sense. The idea of the free movement of labour forces should be given its due consideration.

People should have the right to work anywhere they want as long as they are hired. Human trafficking is just another side of the coin in a country with strict rules on labour and migration. If people could enter any particular country without much hassle, they wouldn't need help from any traffickers.

States around the world should change their attitudes toward labour. We have free-trade zones. Why don't we create a free flowing labour force?

Migration has taken place since the first men and women of this world emerged. Nobody has been able to stop people from moving. They come and go. Nobody is exempt from this phenomenon that sees people changing their places of living and working from time to time.

Movement is simply human nature. Indeed, the same could be said for just about every living being. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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