In Trafficking Report, A Stark Warning About Thai Fishing Industry

The U.S. state department has issued its annual report on human trafficking. According to the report, Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela have not been doing enough to combat modern slavery. And the report includes a warning to American importers of seafood: Clean up supply chains that include Thailand, where fish may be caught or processed using slave labor.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The State Department issued its annual report on human trafficking today. And Thailand is now on the list of countries flagged for not doing enough to combat modern-day slavery. That's in part because of Thailand's fishing industry, as NPR's, Michele Kelemen, reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The author of the report, Luis Cdebaca, says American consumers and seafood importers have a role to play in combating human trafficking.

LUIS CDEBACA: Nobody can say that it's sustainable seafood if the hands that are pulling the nets are themselves enslaved.

KELEMEN: In an interview with NPR, the ambassador at large for combating trafficking in persons paints a grim picture of the seafood industry in Thailand, where he says authorities are not doing enough to punish businesses that violate labor laws.

CDEBACA: Because right now, frankly, if all you get is a small fine for having six-year-olds deveining shrimp for the American export market, taking peoples passports away or even basically kidnapping these men and having them on the boats for two or three years - if all you get is a small fine for that, then you just absorb that as the cost of doing business.

KELEMEN: And that's one reason why Thailand landed on the so-called tier three list - countries that are failing to combat human trafficking. The Thai embassy says it's disappointed by the ranking which, it says, ignores the progress the country has made. Cdebaca tells NPR that there are some bright spots, including a social development minister, who once ran a group that saved Thai women enslaved in the Middle East as domestic servants and prostitutes.

CDEBACA: So we see that there are a number of actors in the Thai government who care and are trying to address this, but political will and corruption seems to be almost an anchor around their necks.

KELEMEN: Unlike most State Department reports, this one also looks inwards, and Melissa Sperber of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking says there's a lot of room for improvement for the U.S. when it comes to funding the fight against modern-day slavery.

MELISSA SPERBER: It is embarrassingly small in terms of the amount that the U.S. is investing compared to the scope of the problem and the increasing demand for services.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Cdebaca, a former prosecutor, though, thinks the U.S. is making strides. There are anti-trafficking laws in all 50 states. And, as he puts it, the word is out among pimps, farm labor recruiters and others. But he says there is more work to do to help the more than a million and a half victims of trafficking in the Americas - many of them enslaved in their own countries.

CDEBACA: It's not just Colombian women who might end up enslaved in Miami, it's Colombian women in Colombia, in their own neighborhoods - just as the bulk of the victims in the United States are just as likely to be U.S. citizens as they are foreign migrants.

KELEMEN: He wants this year's State Department report to give those victims a voice in Washington and in their states and cities. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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