On Friday, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) announced it will withdraw preferential tariffs for many imports from Thailand due to egregious, ongoing worker rights violations in the country. As highlighted in submissions by the AFL-CIO going back to 2013, the government of Thailand actively retaliates against workers and allows the worst forms of exploitation and abuse, including forced labor, to proliferate throughout its economy.
Numerous reports document rampant forced labor in the fishing sector, however, extreme worker rights violations are present throughout the Thai economy, with both Thai workers and migrant workers facing repression and abuse. The government severely limits all workers’ ability to form and join unions, does not enforce collective bargaining and prevents workers from striking. The meager protections that do exist are not enforced.
The Thai government targets independent labor leaders and activists. The government fined seven leaders of the State Railway Union of Thailand (SRUT) $760,000 for protesting unsafe conditions following a deadly train derailment in 2009. In November 2018, the State Railway began deducting the fines from its monthly pay or retirement checks, leaving some with as little as $9 a month in take-home pay. The fines have been condemned by Thailand’s own National Human Rights Commission, but the Thai government has only increased repression in the past months. In February, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, a body that is supposed to investigate high-level government corruption, began to investigate SRUT leaders over their health and safety initiative. They are now being prosecuted under the criminal code.
Employers are allowed to retaliate against workers who organize with impunity. When companies illegally fire workers who try to organize, Thai labor officials often pressure the workers to accept meager buyouts. Mitsubishi Electric’s Thai subsidiary sent workers who tried to form a union to military re-education camps, forced them to issue personal public apologies to the company and eventually locked out all union members. Thailand’s Labor Relations Committee issued a ruling that the locked-out workers should be reinstated, but the company simply ignored it without consequence. Companies can even bring criminal defamation claims against workers and advocates who publicize abuses. For example, migrant workers who reported severe abuses at the Thammakaset chicken farm have been repeatedly sued by the company.
Thai laws enshrine systemic discrimination against migrant workers, including barring them from forming unions, which creates a vulnerable underclass ripe for exploitation. Trafficked migrant workers are trapped at sea, sometimes for years, forced to sleep in cramped quarters and fed as little as a plate of rice a day. Those too ill to work are sometimes thrown overboard. Unfortunately, human trafficking and forced labor are not confined to sea work, but appear across the economy, including in agriculture, construction and domestic work.
These abhorrent practices must end. Thailand was the second largest recipient of preferential trade benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in 2017. The decision to suspend benefits sends a strong message that countries should not seek a competitive advantage in global trade by artificially lowering labor costs through oppression. This is a rare example of a U.S. trade policy that attempts to create incentives to protect and respect human rights, and it is welcome news that is finally being applied in Thailand. Workers should share in the wealth they create, and we hope that the economic pressure of GSP suspension will lead the Thai government to change course and allow workers to exercise their fundamental rights.