International trade has gradually become an important source of growth for many economies. Trade standards (how countries decide which products should be allowed into their markets), have also expanded to include areas such as intellectual property rights, the environment, labour and human rights. Keeping up with these trade-related issues is vital for any country aiming to become a successful trading nation.
Commissioned by the Trade Policy and Strategy Office (TPSO) of the Ministry of Commerce, Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) conducted a study which found that, in recent years, many countries and international organisations have issued trade standards with different shades of human rights protection. Since human rights in trade are all about labour rights, most of these are highly related to employment conditions, such as a ban against forced labour and child labour.
As reported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the number of trade agreements that include labour provisions had increased from four in 1995, to 58 in 2013. Almost half of these provisions include compliance conditions for the trading parties to revise national laws in accordance with the ILO standards or lose trade privileges.
The first two principles of the UN Global Compact stress that businesses should support and respect the protection of human rights, and ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses. Pressured by the new trade landscape, governments can no longer focus on economic prosperity without addressing social development through the promotion of fundamental human rights.
There are at least three reasons why Thailand should think seriously about human rights in trade standards. First of all is the prevalence of the problem in the country. The 2016 Global Slavery Index ranked Thailand at 16th out of 167 countries in terms of absolute number of people in modern slavery, and 20th in terms of estimated proportion of population.
Forced labour has strong links to other forms of human rights abuses such as human trafficking and slavery, and is often found in labour-intensive industries such as agriculture, food production and manufacturing, all of which are vital for the Thai economy. The agricultural sector alone accounts for around 40% of employment in Thailand. Making sure that every worker in these sectors is treated according to international standards is undeniably challenging.
Second, more and more attention is turning towards Thailand in dealing with human rights issues. In 1969, Thailand actually ratified two ILO fundamental instruments related to human rights protection, namely the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention of 1957.
During the past few years, however, reports and documentaries about forced labour and slavery in Thailand, especially in food processing and fisheries, have piled up and raised alarm about human rights abuses. These pressured the Thai government to take several actions, from revising laws to establishing ad hoc committees to combat the issue.
Although these actions helped elevate the country’s position in the 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List, they are far from being sufficient and effective enough. The recent court verdict that found human rights whistle-blower, Andy Hall, guilty of defaming a fruit processing company could raise questions about the whole process of human rights protection in the country, and may eventually bring Thailand back to the bottom tier.
Thirdly, many of Thailand’s major trading counterparts have laws and measures in place to respond to human rights violations. It is only a matter of time until they use these measures against Thai products.
The most recent and evident example is the “yellow card” given to Thailand in 2015 by the European Union for failing to comply with the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU). Back in March 2014, the European Parliament had voted that Thailand must address human trafficking and forced labour problems as part of trade negotiations between the EU and Thailand – which have not resumed since the military took power later in the same year.
With regard to the US, Washington, under the Tariff Act of 1930, can also ban imported products manufactured with the use of forced labour. Executive Order 13126 also prohibits US federal agencies from procuring a list of goods made by forced and child labourers, among these are garments and shrimp from Thailand.
In sum, there is a growing tendency that human rights issues will be used as trade standards by trading partners and international organisations. Therefore, it is important for Thailand to keep up with the trend by implementing more preemptive steps to address the issue.
Perhaps it is time to introduce an up-to-date risk management system for trade-related issues that can produce swift responses to the early warning signs, instead of letting the problem hit boiling point and out of control.
Boonwara Sumano is a research fellow with the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).