Combating slavery

Cambodian artist Vannak Prum was a victim of human trafficking and became a virtual slave on a Thai fishing boat for three years before escaping. Prum has told his story through artwork (pictured) in an effort to combat this modern form of human slavery. In June 2012, Prum was recognised by the US State Department as one of the 10 heroes in the fight against human trafficking. Vannak Prum Copyright ©

Cambodian artist Vannak Prum was a victim of human trafficking and became a virtual slave on a Thai fishing boat for three years before escaping. Prum has told his story through artwork (pictured) in an effort to combat this modern form of human slavery. In June 2012, Prum was recognised by the US State Department as one of the 10 heroes in the fight against human trafficking. Vannak Prum Copyright ©

The Thai fishing industry is starting to change its work practises as a result of international lobbying opposing the use of human trafficking and forced labour.

Thai multinational food giant, CPF, announced in January that it traced and audited the 380 fishing boats that supply the fish they use in products.

“CPF has stated boats have been audited and found to comply with crew log procedures,” Dr Zirnsak, director of the synod’s Justice and International Mission unit, said.

“Crew logs make it much harder for people to simply disappear at sea – there have previously been many reports of workers being murdered at sea.

“This announcement sets a precedent for other buyers of Thai seafood and we are encouraging Australian importers to follow CPF’s example.”

The JIM unit has resourced Uniting Church members to take action against human trafficking for many years.

Forced labour in the Thai fishing industry and Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest are two areas of particular concern for human rights advocates.

Rohingya refugees (a Muslim ethnic minority who often flee Burma due to persecution) are one group being trafficked and held for ransom or sold onto Thai fishing boats.

Research from the International Labor Organisation indicates many fishermen working on Thai boats often work against their will, with some reportedly held under threats of violence for several years.

“Vulnerable people are at particular risk of being trafficked,” Dr Zirnsak said.

“Often they are promised work or a better life.”

Despite the horrific stories of those who have been trafficked, progress is being made.

Survivors report that recent raids by Thai law enforcement appear to have reduced the extent of forced labour in the region.

Rohingya and Bangladeshis who have arrived in Thailand recently have been screened by government teams to assess the potential for human trafficking.

If found to be victims of trafficking, individuals are transferred to shelters to facilitate rehabilitation and investigation of suspected slavers.

The Australian government is also taking action. Two years ago the Federal Government launched a $50 million program, the Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which will run until 2018.

The program aims to increase police and court system responses to human trafficking cases in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Suppliers and retailers are also beginning to tackle the issue.

However the Thai government has also announced a pilot program which proposes to use prison labour as a measure to replace slave labour on boats.

Details of the program are scarce at this stage, though it appears prisoners in Thai jails will be permitted to work on Thai fishing vessels.

The synod of Victoria and Tasmania has signed a joint letter, with more than 40 other anti-slavery organisations, urging the Thai government to abandon the plan.

Uniting Church members have also been active in the campaign urging the Uzbekistan regime to discontinue the use of forced labour in cotton production.

Reports from 2014 indicate children were being forced to harvest cotton and that at least 15 people were killed during that harvest.

“Uniting Church members are vital to the progress being made on addressing forced labour and human trafficking,” Dr Zirnsak said.

“Church members have written letters and postcards to Australian clothing companies urging they take all reasonable steps to exclude Uzbekistan cotton in their products until the regime ends its use of forced labour.

“Church members have also written letters concerning the plight of Rohingya refugees and urging both the Thai and Australian governments to take action.”

For more information on contact jim@victas.uca.org.au or ph: 0392515266

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