Trafficking, underpaid work and migration in Asia

After signing an important Memorandum of Understanding with the Cambodian National Committee for Counter Trafficking, GVC presented the research “Labour Migration and Human Trafficking” in Bangkok, with the Asian Institute of Technology. 

By Margherita Romanelli*


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A twist of words, concepts, actors links human trafficking with new slaveries and migration. Often, these issues intertwine and overlap: if you speak of one you end up talking of the other. It is also an international affair that ties – in a new globalization era – North and South, Western and Eastern countries.

In recent years, Thailand has been called out by the international community for not dealing with or finding solutions to end human trafficking. In 2015 and 2017, the US Department of State ranked the country Tier 2 for not having done enough to contrast trafficking. The exploitation of labour work of migrants is particularly worrying in several sectors such as the fishing industry. With 5,8 billion dollars in exports in 2017, Thailand is among the largest exporters of fish globally, the same fish, mainly tuna or shrimp, that ends up on our dining room tables. In 2015, the European Union asked Thailand to abolish forced labour in the fishing industry, threatening to ban the importation of their products according to the IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing) programme. In return, Thailand promoted a series of initiatives to contrast the issue.  However, the results are not yet sufficient and are sometimes counterproductive. For example, the 2017 Royal Ordinance on Migrant Worker Management foresees an increase in fines for employers, but at the same time introduces a detention period for migrant workers, who end up being the most penalized.

For these reasons, GVC promoted the sector study “Labour Migration and Human Trafficking. An Analysis of laws, regulations and policies in Thailand and Cambodia”, conducted together with the Asian Institute of Techonlogy, to identify deficiencies and gaps in the Thai and Cambodian laws and policies. 

So what is human trafficking? According to the United Nations, this phenomenon implies exploitation through means of physical or psychological constraint and concerns prostitution, forced labour, slavery and organ harvesting. Affecting both migrants and citizens of a country.

Globally, human trafficking is increasing. According to ILO, the International Labour Organisation, 40.3 million people were victims of human trafficking in 2017. Of which 10 million were children. Approximately 25 million are victims of forced labour (4,8 in prostitution), for an illicit profit of 150 billion dollars per year. 

Today, migrants who do not have access to regular channels end up in the hands of “migration facilitators”, often part of criminal networks. If it is easier to identify those who force migrants into prostitution as traffickers and exploiters, less so for unscrupulous business owners who constrain thousands of people into forced labour. Among these, people working in fisheries in South-East Asia. It is precisely here that 62% of victims are exploited, with over 15 million people coerced into forced labour.

Currently, approximately 1,5 million Cambodians live in Thailand, mostly come from the poorest areas in the North: they are unschooled and do not have specific professional skills.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the world witnessed the growth of the Asian tigers. Years in which economic globalisation benefitted of a wide and optimistic consensus. Growth, unaccompanied by the recognition of rights or contrast to inequalities, has certainly constituted one of the main drivers of migration and exploitation, a phenomenon that today is also affecting our economies and societies.  

Economic growth in Thailand requires external labour work, as the country’s work force results insufficient. Minimum wage is double the pay in Cambodia and ends up attracting unemployed youth and poor rural workers. However, only 31% of migrants, according to ILO (2017), enters the country through regular channels. In 2003, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a mechanism of regular migration, linked to employment contracts, using agencies that put Cambodian workers in contact with Thai employers. The costs, that should be around 100 dollars, increase 5-7 times, reaching a total of 5-700 dollars and take up to 6 months’ time. Over more, regular migration does not necessarily offer better guarantees than irregular channels. The probability of becoming subject to trafficking is still very high and is due to the connivance of interests among recruitment agencies and business owners, favoured also by a corrupt system and scarce capacity of control and lawfulness by institutions and authorities on both sides of the border. For irregular migrants, the risks of becoming a victim of human trafficking – coerced into prostitution, domestic slavery, construction work, agriculture or the fish industry – is even higher. Affecting both men and women, this phenomenon does not spare an increasing number of minors either. Underpaid work, extra work, violation of rights, discrimination of women and mothers, violence, threats, document confiscation and other abuses concern 75% of regular and 82% of irregular migrants (ILO 2017).  

The mechanism that induces migrants to travel outside of official channels in Cambodia and Thailand, as well as their vulnerability in regards to traffickers, still has not been addressed appropriately. Corroborated by a legal system the does not enable the identification of victims, protect them or consent fair reparation. For example, if migrant workers cannot demonstrate that they are victims of abuse and violence, they cannot change employer according to the current law; in this context, it is not possible to end exploitation.

In this framework, a complex scenario emerged from the research “Labour Migration and Human Trafficking”, demonstrating the necessity to intervene and identifying three priorities:

a) Make legal migration channels available, contrasting corruption and incapacity of officials on both sides to reduce costs, length and offer safe paths;

b) Strengthen migrant workers’ rights, giving the possibility of changing employer, of having an active role in Unions and enabling the latter – together with human rights organisations – to act effectively;

c) Protect victims, even if they migrated through irregular channels: guarantee a fair trial in a system that punishes traffickers and enables reparation of damages/violations suffered. 

With these objectives, GVC has been working in Cambodia since 2012 and started operating in Thailand in 2017. Working alongside and with migrants, their families and their communities to prevent exploitation and make people aware of their rights and the risks they may incur. With the support of 3 local NGOs (LSCW, CWCC e LPN) GVC alerts authorities of abuses, provides legal assistance to victims, ensures their protection and social reintegration with a special regard to women who represent 70% of beneficiaries. In 81% of cases, it is women who find assistance through NGOs, capable of building relationships of trust, understanding and protection, in a context where strong gender inequalities persist (ILO, 2018).

However, it is not enough. It is imperative to find solutions to the issues upstream, to make victims’ voices heard at national level, to identify gaps and deficiencies in the legal system. It is a duty to do so, involving both parties: Cambodia and Thailand.

For this reason, from the 7th to the 9th of May 2018, GVC organised a 3-day conference in Bangkok with debates, workshops and field visits. 160 participants among whom the chief representatives of the Thai and Cambodian Ministry of Work, Internal Affairs, Social Affairs, the police, the European Union and United Nations agencies, as well as other  civil society organisations and representatives of migrants and business owners. By discussing the results of the research “Labour Migration and Human Trafficking”, redacted with the Asian Institute of Technology, it was convened that it is necessary to do more and with an improved coordination, as well as operate according to the motto Rights-Respect-Dignity promoted by the GVC project MIG-RIGHT, funded by the European Union.  

It is with this ambition, that GVC’s commitment continues, through an international campaign to raise awareness amongst institutions, associations, business owners, consumers and citizens, in order to contrast the use of products of forced labour. GVC will be in Brussels, at the European Parliament to engage Europe’s attention on exploitation of migrant workers in Thailand, as in Italy.

Only by protecting the rights of the most vulnerable people, will we be able to ensure that our acquired rights are respected, outlawing those who profit and compete unfairly against many virtuous businesses and especially those who exploit the most vulnerable workers, migrants.


*Margherita Romanelli is GVC Policy Advisor and Asia Desk Officer



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