BANGKOK — Police have arrested two suspected human traffickers who allegedly coerced more than 100 Thais into working under slavish conditions on fishing boats in Indonesian waters.
The director of Thailand’s Division of Special Investigation (DSI), Suwana Suwanchutha, announced at a press conference today that two suspected traffickers have been arrested, with a third on the run.
Eight victims filed formal complaints to police, leading to the arrests, she said.
Pol.Col. Paisit Sangkahapong, the director of the DSI's department on suppressing human trafficking, said the suspects targeted Thais who originally hail from rural provinces, approaching them in Bangkok's major transportation hubs, such as Mo Chit Bus Terminal and Hua Lamphong Central Rail Station, with fake job offers.
"They befriend the victims and lie about well-paying jobs at factories and other places," Pol.Col. Paisit explained. "In some cases, the perpetrators admit that the jobs are on fishing boats, but they lie that the jobs will be only short term, and that the pay is good."
In reality, the victims are locked up in buildings in coastal provinces and later forced to work on fishing boats, he said.
"They have to work for many years. They cannot go home. They receive very little pay. They are intimidated, sometimes beaten," said Pol.Col. Paisit, noting that some of the victims are younger than 18.
Pol.Col. Paisit also told reporters that the traffickers sometimes traveled directly to rural communities in Thailand, especially in the northeast, to dupe villagers into working on the boats.
The two suspects have been charged with human trafficking and illegal detention, he said.
Thai authorities are currently working to rescue the victims from boats off of Indonesia, but Pol.Col. Paisit warned that the effort could take a long time due to the geography of the Indonesian archipelago. He added that the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) is working to trace the money trail in order to identify other members of the trafficking network.
Human rights groups and foreign media agencies have documented the extensive use of forced labor in the Thai fishing industry, mostly involving undocumented workers from neighboring countries like Myanmar and Cambodia. Thousands of immigrants and refugee seekers, such as the stateless Rohingya, have been exploited and forced to work under hellish conditions on fishing boats off of Thailand, which is currently the world's third-largest exporter of seafood.
An investigative report by The Guardian in 2014 alleged that Thailand's largest seafood company, CP Foods, has purchased fishmeal from boats manned with slaves.
The Thai government announced today that it is no longer considering a plan that would send prisoners to work on fishing boats in an effort to address the industry's labor shortage. The proposal, which was announced in December, was heavily criticized by human rights groups, who said the program would not address the root causes of the labor shortage that drives trafficking in the induistry.
Forty-five NGOs and labor associations signed a letter to Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha on 15 January arguing that the Thai government is not in a position to fulfill claims that the "prisoners placed on these ships will be treated in line with Thai labour law, nor can it provide reasonable assurances that these prisoners will not end up in conditions of forced labour."
The United States downgraded Thailand to the lowest rank in its annual report on human trafficking last year, citing the government's failure to meet the minimum standards needed to combat human trafficking. The report also alleged that some members of the Thai police and military have participated in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees.
As Thailand prepares a report for the US on its efforts to root out trafficking in 2014, authorities have announced a series of new measures aimed at curbing trafficking, such as strengthening legislation to protect workers in the fishing industry and hiring 700 anti-corruption staff to investigate cases of trafficking.