BANGKOK - Thailand is reporting progress in its efforts to curb human trafficking and abusive labor practices for migrant workers. The government is taking steps, including tougher regulations and new anti-trafficking measures, after coming under criticism from rights groups and the United States.
In 2014 the United States lowered Thailand’s rating in its Trafficking in Persons' (TIP) report in an assessment that the country showed few signs of improving its record on human tracking and illegal labor.
In a wide range of Thai industries, from fishing vessels, factories, and farms, rights groups have complained that many foreign workers are exploited, paid very little and expected to work long hours under threats of violence.
The U.S. downgrade placed Thailand on the lowest ranking, Tier 3, leaving the country open to non-trade and non-humanitarian sanctions, as well as the withholding of assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank.
Thailand has a migrant worker population estimated at up to 3 million people, mostly undocumented workers from Burma, as well as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The U.S. report said victims of human trafficking often subject to forced labor and the sex trade also included people from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, India and Fiji.
Last year, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called for special committees to oversee development of new policies to crack down on trafficking and improve worker rights in a range of industries.
This week, the Thai Foreign Ministry released an interim report on the government’s tougher legislation and new anti-trafficking measures.
At a news conference, Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said he believed the initiatives marked progress in countering human trafficking.
He said that over the previous six months, "there were tangible results" from amendments in law and stricter enforcement.He called these "genuine measures, which could be implemented in a very effective manner."
Measures include tougher regulations to protect labor in the fishing industry, including raising the minimum age for workers to 18 years and ensuring a labor contract for each. In the agriculture sector, the minimum age has been increased to 15.
The government said it reached out to civil society and nongovernment organizations to implement and monitor the policies.
In Thailand’s southern province of Phang Na, Htoo Chit, a Myanmar rights worker and head of a foundation campaigning for migrant labor rights, said the organization was working with the government on a pilot project on the fishing industry.
But Htoo Chit said that although the policy marks an improvement from previous administrations, including registration of currently undocumented labor, more needed to be done.
"It is not diligent enough yet," he said. "For example, [authorities] try to provide this legal status for the migrants in general ... but most of the trafficking victims are undocumented so they also have to monitor [the vessels] at sea."
New rules require all sea-going vessels to have installed vessel monitoring systems (VMS) by February as part of their registration process.
The government said it has registered up to 1.6 million previously undocumented migrant workers in Thailand.
Kanchana Patachoke, a deputy director general in the Thai foreign ministry, said Thailand was looking to improve its standing by acceding to international protocols on human trafficking.
The country is cooperating with international organizations, including the United Nations, she said. "Thailand is also party to the protocol on human trafficking or trafficking of migrants and we’re considering acceding to the protocol on smuggling of migrants as well."
Don Pramudwinai, the deputy foreign minister, told VOA Thailand aims to eradicate forced labor and human trafficking.
"The target is to clean [up], as best as possible, all the problems which have been hindering our society for so long in dealing with the people, in particular the laborers and our ladies," he said. "... Of course, in doing so we are hopeful our actions will be taken into account ... in the TIP report."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division, said that while the policies were welcomed, more needed to be done on enforcement, especially for the most vulnerable populations such as Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who are trafficking victims in Thailand.
"We’ve seen time and time again promises made, commitments promulgated, promises to change laws to change regulations, but nothing gets done about impunity," he said. "... What’s happening to the Rohingya, to migrants forced onto fishing boats, raises serious suspicions that this is once again the Thai government’s effort to talk [itself] out of a problem."
The government said the curbing human trafficking is a top priority. A report summary of the government’s policies is to be forwarded to the U.S. State Department later this month.