The IJM partnership with Walmart since 2015 has brought about tremendous advances in measuring and combating trafficking and abuse in the Thai fishing industry.
Prior to Walmart’s engagement with IJM, there was no baseline study to determine the prevalence of trafficking on Thai fishing boats. Furthermore, there was little oversight of the fishing industry, limited willpower from area governments to address the trafficking, and almost no framework for addressing and combating cross-border trafficking.
Rampant trafficking and abuse in the Thai fishing industry
Thailand is home to one of the largest fishing industries in the world. For years, workers (typically men) across Southeast Asia have been lured by traffickers who promise good pay and consistent work on boats in and around the Gulf of Thailand.
Instead, many of these men board the boats only to find that they have been tricked—and they endure brutal exploitation, little to no pay, and are sometimes even murdered at sea.
It is in this brutal and isolated environment that slavery thrives, especially when paired with a criminal justice system that does not enforce existing anti-trafficking laws or hold criminals accountable.
An initial grant from the Walmart Foundation in 2015 funded a baseline prevalence study to measure the rates of trafficking and abuse among Burmese and Cambodian migrant fishermen. This groundbreaking research showed the massive scale of labor trafficking of migrant fishermen and the common patterns of abuse across the industry.
Additional grants from 2016 to 2021 have funded a new IJM office in Bangkok to specifically address cross-border trafficking. Our staff in Bangkok are coming alongside Thai authorities to implement and enforce laws that target forced labor trafficking and provide care to survivors. This includes taking on criminal cases to hold traffickers accountable, as well as working to repatriate survivors to their home countries.
IJM is now providing support to authorities and partners across Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar to find, rescue and support victims while also holding perpetrators accountable.
Walmart Foundation grants are also making it possible for IJM staff to implement “source-side” programs that focus on strengthening law enforcement interventions and collaboration between source and destination communities. After the successful deployment of this model in the Cambodia-Thailand corridor, the work is being replicated in the Myanmar-Thailand corridor.
Key Findings and Results
Exploitation is widespread
The baseline prevalence studies revealed some shocking realities. Of migrant fishermen interviewed, 37.9% of fishermen were identified as victims of trafficking, 31.5% witnessed a crewmate’s abuse at sea, and 76.2% accrued debt prior to even beginning work.
IJM’s cases are the first regional Thai fishing cases in which victims were identified in a 3rd country (Malaysia/Indonesia), repatriated to their home country (Cambodia) and participated in court processes that have held traffickers accountable in both the source country (Cambodia) and destination country (Thailand).
A clear path for national governments
After working with and training Thai authorities, the Thai government has made strides to own and proactively pursue stronger anti-trafficking efforts. These efforts have led to Thailand being upgraded from Tier 3 status in the U.S. Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report to Tier 2. Thai officials continue to seek IJM guidance to improve their effectiveness.
Though severe cases of trafficking have decreased, the crime of forced labor still exists within the industry. With additional funding from the Walmart Foundation, IJM will conduct further studies to identify the gaps that remain. As we continue our collaborative work to strengthen government responses throughout the region, we are especially focused on helping to build stronger protections for vulnerable workers in the Myanmar-Thailand recruiting corridor.