FAQ:What is human trafficking and Labour exploitation in supply chains look like in southeast asia

Investigative journalists and NGOs convey work in Thailand—on fishing vessels, in factories, and in farms—as often fraught with extreme working conditions and threats to life.  However, it is also widely acknowledged that migration in Southeast Asia is generally a positive strategy for individuals and families looking to improve their lives—and certainly this is a key finding when talking to current and former migrants and their families in migrant communities or their home villages.  What, then, is the true prevalence and risk factors for a migrant to become exploited, whether or not he/she recognizes the situation as exploitation?

In 2016, with funding from  Walmart Foundation through International Justice Mission, Issara conducted surveys with 260 Burmese and Cambodian fisherman across 20 key Thai fishing localities.  Adding to our in-depth understanding of working conditions in the Thai fishing industry, the research revealed that exploitation was much more likely to be found on trawlers, as compared with other types of vessels. It also identified “net supervisors” as a new form of non-Thai middleman that allow the Thai captain and boat owner to distance themselves from abuse and exploitation of fishing workers.

From Issara’s extensive fieldwork, casework, and research, it is clear that illegal overwork, underpay, and debt bondage—key elements of human trafficking—are widespread in Thailand.  However, rates of physical violence—one of the primary indicators of human trafficking in the eyes of many government authorities and anti-trafficking NGOs—are significantly less prevalent. These relatively low (but nevertheless egregious) rates of physical abuse actually make sense from an economic perspective, particularly for trafficking into the production of commodities for global export.  Political restrictions on migrant labour recruitment have produced a dearth of workers at the bottom of the world’s supply chains that incentivizes control over worker movement, while simultaneously disincentivizing physical abuse.  


Anti-trafficking interventions would likely dramatically improve their success rates by not looking for antiquated notions of trafficking and ‘slavery’ such as physical abuse, but instead the subtler, productivity-enhancing, ‘invisible’ abuses of power, discrimination, and threats common to the labour trafficking found in global supply chains.  In the meantime, supply chain approaches such as Issara’s are highly effective at addressing illegal overwork, underpay, and debt bondage with committed business partners, properly structured incentives, and technical assistance.

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(c) 2020 Issara Institute.  All rights reserved.

Issara Institute, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in the United States, and a registered non-profit foundation in Thailand.  All donations are tax deductible.

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