As the basic rights of migrant workers in Thailand's seafood industry remain unprotected, the country should remain on the Tier 2 watchlist in this year's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report by the United States' Department of State, a seminar was told.
The remark was made by Roisai Wongsuban of Freedom Fund. She shared the findings from a research called "Seafood Working Group Findings on Taiwan and Thailand for the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report" conducted by the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) and the Seafood Working Group (SWG).
Thailand was downgraded to a Tier 2 nation last year.
Ms Roisai said while the government did roll out several measures to protect labourers' welfare during the Covid-19 pandemic, foreign workers were also subject to a number of discriminatory measures -- for example, sealing off workers' residential camps to curb the spread of the virus.
"These workers weren't able to file a formal complaint online, because such channels are only available in the Thai language," she said.
She added that they were not eligible to receive the aid and subsidies the government rolled out throughout the pandemic, despite being registered members of Thailand's social security system.
Many foreign migrants in Thailand should be categorised as forced labourers, in her view, as reports of workers being forced to work to pay off debts -- which often exceed US$1,000 (33,699 baht) -- to job brokers are not uncommon.
"Unfortunately, authorities do not consider workers in such a situation to be forced labourers," Ms Roisai said.
"Officials tend to rely on testimonials from employers. They are not doing enough to investigate and verify [the claims]."
She added that since only Thai workers are allowed to form labour unions, the voices of foreign migrant workers often go unheard, despite their numbers.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia, agreed with Ms Roisai, saying Thailand deserves its place on the Tier 2 watchlist, as the working conditions of foreign migrant workers have yet to improve.
"We continue to see the systematic use of forced labour in Thailand's fishing industry, since the first report we released in 2018," he said.
As Thailand was essentially pressured by the European Union to ratify the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention and approved provisions banning the use of forced labour in the industry, there is no effective enforcement of such commitments, he said.
As a start, Mr Robertson said, the government should consider slashing document processing fees with the Department of Employment under the Labour Ministry.
Because it often costs six months' pay to get their documents processed, many often opted to seek jobs with illegal brokers instead, he said.
The government should also ensure migrant workers are protected from retaliatory actions from their employers for reporting their grievances.
"We have encountered this across all industries," he said.