A bill on forced labour prevention has drawn stiff opposition from critics who claimed the proposed law lacks clarity and imposes overly harsh penalties.
The bill, which was prompted by Thailand's decision to ratify the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, was put up for comments by the Labour Ministry yesterday after it was revised by the Council of State, the government's legal adviser.
Criticism came from labour rights advocates and business operators, who called for a further review.
Thanasak Kijrungroj, a representative from the Board of Trade of Thailand, said that while no one questions the merits of the draft law, its contents are controversial -- especially the definition of forced labour.
Forced labour is poorly defined by the bill, which could lead to misunderstandings and prosecution of employers who have no intention to break the law, he said.
"We don't want to put anyone under forced labour conditions, and we are ready to back a law to address the issue, but the one vetted by the Council of State is unacceptable," he said.
According to Section 6 of the bill, forcing a labourer to do something for fear of danger to life, body, freedom, reputation or assets of that person or others, or by force, detention or deprivation of freedom, without paying due wages and overtime monies is considered a violation of this law. Using underage labour in some areas of businesses or in places prohibited by the law is also considered forced labour.
Suchart Chantaranakaracha, vice president of the Federation of Thai Industries, said some offences under the bill are covered by other laws such as the Criminal Code and labour protection law, with penalties twice as harsh.
"Offences under the forced labour protection bill are also non-negotiable and overlap with others laws. It's way too much for business operators," he said.
Papop Siamhan, of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, said the law is a must as it will guarantee that workers will be protected in line with the ILO's protocol.
However, he said it needs to be amended to make it relevant to local contexts in terms of the definition of forced labour, punishments, the role and responsibilities of state agencies in stamping out forced labour.
Sompong Srakaew of the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), said while the law is instrumental in tackling forced labour, public awareness and correct understanding about the issue is also vital. According to Mr Sompong, forced labour is not just limited to illegal labour or migrant workers.
"There is still enough time for all concerned parties to work on this bill and build public awareness about forced labour," he said.
He was referring to the one-year time frame in which Thailand is required to promulgate this law after ratifying the protocol.
Petcharat Sinauy, the deputy labour permanent secretary, said the ministry has yet to endorse the revised version of the bill, pending opinions from other sectors.
She said the ministry found the private sector supports this bill, but has reservations over its content. Suggestions will be forwarded to the cabinet for consideration, she added.
Among vocal opponents of the bill is the commercial fishing industry. Led by National Fisheries Association of Thailand chairman Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, about 300 fishing operators plan to submit a protest letter against the bill with the government.