04 July 2011

10 things you need to know about labour trafficking

Have you ever thought about how and where the products you buy are produced? What about the tuna you had for lunch or the pair of jeans you’re wearing right now?

Many of the goods we use are produced or grown in developing countries. Sometimes the workers producing these goods receive low pay or must work in dangerous conditions, and sometimes the workers are child labourers and people that have been trafficked.

A lot of people are unaware of labour trafficking. While there has been a lot of coverage about sex trafficking in the media over the past 10 years, labour trafficking has been left out of the spotlight.

A new World Vision report, released today to coincide with World Day Against Child Labour, outlines ten things you need to know about labour trafficking in an effort to broaden the debate about trafficking, and explains just who ends up enslaved and where.  

The report shows the trafficking of men, women and children for labour exploitation is far more widespread than sex trafficking, and highlights that for every trafficking victim subjected to forced prostitution, nine people are forced to work.

Labour trafficking can be found in developing countries in places like brick or garment factories, on fishing boats and farms or in people’s homes – but there are also cases right here in Australia. Victims often work long hours in dangerous and dirty conditions, receive little or no pay and are often held as prisoners. They are modern-day slaves.  

First-hand accounts collected by World Vision paint a rather disturbing picture of labour trafficking, particularly in Southeast Asia. The USD$4.8 billion Thai fishing sector is just one of the many industries where labour exploitation is a growing concern. Thailand is the world’s largest canned tuna producer and the fishing industry plays an important part in the Thai economy. Fishing was traditionally a source of income for men from the northeast of Thailand, but these days it is work often left to migrants.

Boys and young men, especially from Cambodia and Myanmar, leave their villages looking for better work opportunities in Thailand but are tricked by traffickers and end up being sold to fishing boat captains. These boys and men are then trapped at sea on offshore fishing boats, starved and forced to work literally to the point of death. Victims have reported that physical abuse and threats are common and workers who try to resist or who become sick are killed or thrown overboard to die.

Kyaw Win* is just one of the many victims who ended up in such exploitative conditions. Born in Myanmar, Kyaw wanted to support his family but ended up in an exploitative situation in Thailand on a fishing boat when he was 16 years old.  The boat, run by Thais, operated illegally in Indonesian territory. Kyaw says the conditions on the boat were worse than an 18th century slave ship.

“They allowed us to sleep only about one hour per day. There were Thais and Khmer people on the boat but they got better treatment than us [from Myanmar],” recalls Kyaw. Controlled by a crew with guns, Kyaw says he and fellow migrants from Myanmar were treated “as animals”. After six months Kyaw managed to escape by jumping off the boat in the middle of the night.

Although a majority of labour trafficking happens outside of Australia, individuals, governments and businesses worldwide directly and indirectly fuel the crime of human trafficking and slavery and have a role to play in combating it.

While it is difficult to determine exactly what products have been made using exploitative labour, over the past few years pressure from organisations like World Vision has encouraged many companies to clean up their supply chains to make sure they are free from exploitation. For example, in Australia you can now buy ethically certified chocolate, coffee, tea, sports products, footwear and clothing. But more needs to be done. Australian consumers and the Australian Government must encourage businesses to make sure their supply chains - especially ones that go overseas - are transparent, traceable and free from labour trafficking.