So why do we keep treating it as a revelation?
Today, I found this story on Guardian Global Development: an Associated Press investigation intohuman trafficking and labour abuses of the most acute kind in Thailand’s fishing industry.
It’s an excellent piece of journalism. It promotes the voices of the Burmese slaves at the heart of the story. It shows both bold groundwork and solid data chasing.
But I have a problem with it.
Andy Hall, a researcher and migration expert, is in the docks on defamation charges – a criminal offence in Thailand – for authoring a report for Finnish NGO Finnwatch that found serious labour rights abuses in the tuna and fruit processing industry.
The case studies are different, the angles varied, but fundamentally, they raise the same issue: Thailand has a major problem with human trafficking. Most of the victims are from poorer neighbouring countries in South east Asia, especially Myanmar.
According to the EJF report:
Multiple reports over the past five years have documented abuses of trafficked boat workers in Thailand, including bonded labour, excessive working hours, little or no pay, threats of violence, physical abuse and murder. 12/13 A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that 59 per cent of interviewed migrants trafficked aboard Thai fishing boats reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.14
These reports go back at least as far as 2009. So why are big media constantly running these stories as if they were scoops? These reports are billed as “revealing” the issue, but this is something we have known about for a long time.
It’s hard to build popular pressure for change if every story about Thailand’s slavery problem is billed as a revelation: something we didn’t know, something horrifying that we have just found out, something that shocks us.
In the meantime, hoards of tourists flock to Thailand: over 900,000 Brits every year, according to the Foreign Office. Trafficking is not limited to the food industry: as this report from the Pulitzer Center notes, many of the women doing dangerous work in Thailand’s sex industry have been trafficked or are in bonded labour, largely in service of western tourists.
According to the Pulitzer Center:
The sex industry has rapidly accelerated the spread of HIV after the virus first appeared in Thailand in the 1980s, but the Thai government is reticent to address the problem lest it scare away coveted tourist dollars.
Many people who visit Thailand are energetic, open-minded and politically aware. So, where is the boycott? Where is the protest movement? When I traveled to South Africa, it was as though liberals felt compelled to brandish their credentials by mentioning the inequality problem.
Unlike the spectre of South African apartheid, bullet holes in Balkan walls, or begging children on Indian streets, slavery is largely invisible to the country’s visitors. Locked away in sweltering sheds in industrial zones away from the pretty bits, Thailand’s trafficking victims are out of sight, out of mind.
Reporting on this issue is vital to keep it in the public eye, especially in a country which earns so much from exports and tourism. But we must stop treating every fresh report as a shocker, a revelation. To do so is to deny the masses of accusatory evidence in existence years beforehand.
Ask about the cause of these problems and you get a strange sense of deja vu: the authorities have not been trained to handle the issue, corruption prevails, it’s easiest to ignore it. The same problems keep rearing their heads every time we look.
When I was reporting on the food industry, the Thai fishing industry held a seminar during which we were reassured that the problems were being tackled and unannounced inspections were standard practice. That was well over a year ago. So why are these reports still appearing?
If you’re going to Thailand, presumably it’s for a refreshing tropical holiday with beaches, elephants and exquisite food, rather than a grim primer in modern-day slavery. But go with a critical eye. Because shrimp paste goes into those curries. Those guys in your hostel might not admit to it, but ping pong patrons come from somewhere. The least you can do is be aware.