Can “Strategic Litigation” Stop Asia’s Modern-Day Slavery?Untitled

Lotus News Analysis

In the past two decades a labour-starved world has seen the flow of unskilled migrant labour increase many fold turning it into a business that trade in human beings. With recruitments agents right across Asia charging exorbitant fees and later dumping them in exploitative and life-threatening conditions, this trade has today come to be known as a modern-day slavery trade.

This month, the US-based Human Trafficking Pro-Bono Legal Centre (HTPBLC), a group of lawyers working with non-governmental organization across the world released a report titled ‘Ending Impunity Secure Justice’ calling for what they call “strategic litigation”. That is to use civil litigation across the world to push reluctant governments and businesses to take action to stop this slavery trade.

Around the world, investigative reporters regularly expose human trafficking resulting in slave-labour, and human rights organisations have documented numerous cases. But, governments and law enforcement officials, particularly in Asia, have been slow to act on these.

“The time has come to build an international network of lawyers and advocates who have the tools they need to bring the right cases to the right courts” notes the report, adding “States are failing miserably to combat human trafficking”.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 20.9 million people are held in servitude worldwide. The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report estimates that there were just 10,051 persecutions worldwide in 2014. This translates to just one criminal case being persecuted for every 2,079 individuals help in modern-day slavery.

“Prosecutors tend to bring cases against sex traffickers much more often than against labour trafficking” says the report, pointing out that in the US only 18 of the 208 federal indictment of human trafficking cases in 2014 were alleged forced labour.

One successful case involved 20 Indian guest workers brought to the US by Signal International, and it demonstrated how lawsuits can hold traffickers accountable and hit the corporate bottom line. They came with contracts to rebuild shipyards in Texas and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

The guest workers each paid the labor recruiters in India and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after recruiters promised good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency for them and their families. Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.

When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula and Orange, Texas beginning in 2006, they discovered that they wouldn’t receive the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised. The company also forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a small space. None of the company’s non-Indian workers were required to live in such company housing.

In February last year, a jury in New Orleans found that the company had held the men in forced labor in the United States, and awarded $14 million to just five of the workers who had sued. In a global settlement, the company then agreed to pay $20 million in damages to all of the workers.

The company subsequently filed for bankruptcy and issued an unprecedented public apology for mistreating the Indian workers.

Victims of human trafficking in Asia have not been that lucky. Often due to corrupt government officials and law enforcement agencies the recruiters get away scott free while the victims get deported.

Slave labour from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia in the Thai fishing industry has been widely reported internationally after London’s Guardian newspaper exposed it in June 2014, leading to a global social media campaign to boycott Thai prawns. In July 2015, The Guardian reported that Rhingya migrants from Myanmar are also trafficked and sold to Thai fishing vessels to be used as slaves. A Thai trafficker has described to the Guardian how he sold 100 Rhoingyas at around $ 100 each to fishing vessels. He has also admitted that he has sold other Myanmarese, Laotians and Cambodians as well.

With the lucrative Thai prawn export industry billion to the US and Europe worth $2.5 under threat, the Thai government has started to act. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared combating human trafficking a national priority. In a statement in March 2015, he called on all government agencies to "clean up their houses." In April, a new government rule requires each fishing vessel to list who is on board, who it is licensed to, the name of its owner, and where it will operate before it leaves port and once it returns. There is an estimated 200,000 workers on fishing vessels that are trafficked and unregistered according to the Racks Thai Foundation.

Meanwhile Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on December 22nd that Thai authorities have detained 43 Lao women, some of whom appear underage, for illegally entering the country to work in the sex trade just two days after the Lao parliament passed an anti-human trafficking law to ensure protection for victims and punishments for perpetrators.

Passed on December 18, the Law on Preventing Human Trafficking, stipulates prison sentences of 15 to 20 years and fines of 100 million-500 million kip ($12,300-$61,300) for those found guilty of human trafficking in the region.

In August, RFA also reported on another human trafficking case from Laos where 18 men were found by Thai police, after one of them escaped and complained, working in a pig farm near Bangkok and kept in cages like animals. One of the escapees, 25 year old Chanon Saenkaeo said the Lao workers were beaten, forced to work all day without pay, and had to defecate in plastic bags because the cages they were kept in had no toilets.

Investigators found that 13 of the Laotians landed at the farm three months ago after they paid the job broker 5,000 baht ($140) to smuggle them into Thailand for work, according to Thai media reports. They have been promised a salary of 7,000 baht ($196), but never received any money.

The (HTPBLC) report pointed out that the major problems in stemming this modern-day slavery trade includes corruption, lack of political will, business models that depend on cheap labour and States’ economic reliance on remittances from their citizens working abroad.

“Traffickers currently face little or no risk that the human rights violations they commit will result in criminal penalties,” laments the report. “The dearth of criminal prosecutions effectively results in impunity”.

But, the report’s authors believe that strategic litigation can be a catalyst for genuine and long-term change. “Most importantly, strategic litigations increase the risks to perpetuators. It is a great challenge to the impunity they currently enjoy,” report argues. “It also serves as a genuine deterrent to would-be-traffickers in an environment where other deterrents are solely lacking.”

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