Business can join trafficking fight
The recent upgrading of Thailand's status to Tier 2 of the US Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) is a positive development that will be welcome by many. While Thailand has yet to fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, the report recognises the significant counter-trafficking efforts the Thai government has undertaken.
Human trafficking and related crimes, increasingly described as modern slavery, is an area of concern not just for Thailand but also the Greater Mekong subregion and beyond. While estimates on its scale vary, we know a large number of individuals are affected globally.
According to the most recent Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, jointly produced by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, the International Labour Organisation, and the Walk Free Foundation, about 40 million people around the world were victims of modern slavery in 2016. Migrants comprise almost a quarter of victims and as identified in the TIP report, are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, some of which may involve trafficking.
For Thailand, it is likely counter-trafficking efforts will continue to intensify with the goal of achieving Tier 1 status. But while the role of combating human trafficking and related crimes has traditionally been ascribed to government and civil society, there is increasing consensus that partnerships with other non-traditional stakeholders, particularly the private sector, is essential for efforts to be truly successful.
Most aspirant migrants move to earn better livelihoods. However, existing migration channels tend to involve costly or complicated processes. This encourages migrants to cross borders with the help of smugglers and seek jobs with employers willing to turn a blind eye to their lack of documentation. Such irregular movements put migrants at a higher risk with IOM research suggesting that trafficking in the Greater Mekong subregion is closely connected with irregular migration.
The cycle of exploitation can start even before a migrant even leaves his or her home. Due to a lack of knowledge about their rights, migrants are vulnerable to being tricked or pressured by unethical recruitment brokers. They may be given misleading information about their employment conditions and be forced to pay exorbitant recruitment fees, leading to situations of debt bondage. Once at their workplace, migrants are often forced to work in hazardous conditions and are subjected to movement restrictions. In extreme cases, they are subjected to abuse and forced labour, working long hours for little or no pay. In light of these trends, it is clear that businesses can and should play a role in the fight against human trafficking and modern day slavery. As employers, they directly influence the terms in which migrants are hired and employed, as well as the conditions they work in.
In recent years, the business case for companies to pay close attention to labour exploitation, including human trafficking as its most egregious form, has strengthened. Businesses, regardless of size, are now formally accorded the responsibility to respect human rights as stipulated under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights -- principles in which the Thai government continues to reiterate its commitment towards. Regionally, Thailand has been taking a lead in implementing the principles through the development of a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights which will cover all types of business entities from small-medium sized enterprises to multinational corporations. In addition, there is an international trend of national regulations being extended to global supply chains for companies operating in countries such as the UK, US and France.
Many businesses are unaware of the presence of trafficking in the first place due to a lack of transparency and oversight in a complex and fragmented web of intermediaries. A reliance on exploitative suppliers and their possible affiliation with criminal networks can result in criminal litigation and supply chain disruptions. In an age where consumers increasingly expect their products to be sustainably sourced, reputational damage in such instances may also lead to dented consumer trust and boycotts -- unnecessary business risks that can be avoided.
But investing in resources to address these problems need not necessarily be viewed as a sunk cost. In our work with the private sector, IOM has found the businesses that protect migrant rights often reap benefits in the form of more productive workplaces and increased customer and investor trust.
As a first step, businesses can start by incorporating human rights due diligence processes in their supply chains. Risks identified through mapping exercises -- whether on the value chain of a business product from source to store, or the recruitment process of migrant workers from community to workplaces, can allow for mitigation strategies and fair labour practices to be developed. While the private sector lacks legal enforcement and prosecutorial powers, they can still sanction and invoke penalties on staff and business partners, sending a strong message of zero tolerance on breaches of ethical codes of conduct.
Businesses can also work with the government, international organisations and civil society on prevention, protection and prosecution -- key tenets of the counter-trafficking framework. These can range from awareness raising about labour rights to victim identification and protection. The Seafood Taskforce, established to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) in Thailand, is one excellent example of cross-sector collaboration.
Dana Graber Ladek is the Chief of Mission of IOM, the UN Migration Agency in Thailand.
Dana Graber Ladek
IOM Chief of Mission
Dana Graber Ladek is the Chief of Mission of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Mission in Thailand.