Tag Archives: development

Slavery in Thai fish sheds is not new

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.

The story is awfully similar to this report in the Guardian. And this one, on the BBC. And this investigation by NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation.

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.

Hall’s blog and Twitter, incidentally, are well worth reading if you care even slightly about the issue.

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.

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Didn’t know about the Garissa massacre? Blame yourself, not the media.

When I switched my laptop on on Saturday morning, all the terabytes of the internet were consumed by people’s reactions to the Paris shootings. On Facebook were expressions of everything from sympathy to anger. One of the most common responses among my friends was: “What about all these other tragedies that have happened recently?”

These posters, some propelled by enough righteous anger to fry an egg, mostly referenced Thursday’s Beirut suicide bomb and the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya. So hasty were they to shame these superficial Europeans, some even failed to spot that the Garissa massacre happened in April.

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Their basic point is this: why have the Paris attacks attracted such a public orgy of grief, when comparable tragedies in countries that the west views as poor, war-torn and remote attract not a whisper? (In this post I’m ignoring, because it’s so blindingly obvious, the point that France and the UK are neighbours, most Brits have probably been to Paris, and many were personally alarmed for their friends.) Why the disproportionate media focus on Paris? Why has Facebook gone so far as to enable a special French flag filter for your profile picture, when many more people are hurting in other countries? What despicable traits of racism, thoughtlessness and derision do these imply in our collective psyche?

There’s one problem with this: Garissa received reams and reams of coverage. It attracted reportage, videos, analysis and photojournalism from The Guardian, the BBC, the Telegraph, the Daily Express and, yes, the Daily Mail. Just about every major news outlet in the UK covered it, albeit not to the same degree as Paris. Coverage included reporting the #147notjustanumber campaign to humanise the massacre’s victims. If you’re pissed you missed that one, you should change how you read the news.

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The media has innumerable blind spots reporting important issues in the developing world, and this is a genuine problem. There are all kinds of reasons for this: lack of funds means major news outlets close bureaus and buy their stories from agencies such as Reuters or AFP, for instance. But the number one driver for the news agenda is what people want to read. No news editor in the world is going to see a story shooting to the top of the most-read list and say: “Meh, covered it. What else have you got?” If the media aren’t covering other massacres, it’s because you lot aren’t reading about them.

If your idea of staying informed about global events is re-sharing a Comment is Free link and glancing at BBC News’s Most Read, the main problem isn’t the media. It’s your own lack of interest. On an internet that seems to be gravitating towards Facebook like a black hole in the pocket of Mark Zuckerberg’s hoody, why seek out a broad range of news sources when Facebook could be your one-stop shop?

Where once, social media was all trading likes on angle shots and having a catty rejig of your Myspace Top 8, it has become a cover-all for messaging, professional networking, event planning and, crucially, news. Facebook now has a panel telling us what stories are trending. Where once we trusted professional editors to collate the most important happenings and topics, we now crowdsource the job to our friends, hoping that the mix of hardcore activists and viral content lovers will do the trick instead.

If you want to know more about major massacres and attacks when they happen, you have a smorgasboard of choice. Big outlets like The Guardian, The Economist, Al Jazeera and the BBC provide ample coverage of these stories. There are almost no regions on earth that don’t have their own English-language press. There are dedicated publications like The New Internationalist and Foreign Policy, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with all manner of mailing lists. Indie news websites providing alternative perspectives less palatable in the mainstream media are popping up like digital daisies.

Go ahead: look ’em up. Bookmark them. Instead of scrolling blankly through Facebook when you’re bored, see what’s going on in the world. It’s a good alternative to “liking” other people’s posts about how bored they are in a great circlejerk of stupefaction.

Share what you find. Say what you think. And if you’re waving Garissa around from your high horse like a giant banner of philosophical butthurt but only heard about it last week, please just fuck off.