THAILAND’S government struggled to defend itself yesterday against charges that it was ignoring slavery and forced labour in its shrimp industry.
Press reports last week revealed gross exploitation of forced labour in the industry.
But government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd — flanked by police, navy and other officials — held a press conference to answer the claims.
He claimed that the government had already been aware of slavery in the industry before the report was released on December 14.
“The report said that government officials ignore this matter … This is not the truth,” he said.
“Authorities found it first,” he insisted, adding that the Thai government wanted the shrimp industry to have “proper working conditions according to international laws.”
Thailand is one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers and its export industry is estimated to bring in about £4.7 billion annually.
An Associated Press report revealed the widespread use of undocumented migrant labourers, many from neighbouring Myanmar.
Many labourers ended up being tricked or sold into shrimp-peeling sheds where they were forced to work 16-hour days with no time off and little or no pay for sometimes years at a time.
Many workers are held eunder debt bondage, forced to repay money the company gave to the agents who sold them.
Some end up locked inside. Others are allowed to go out, but only if they leave their children or spouse behind as a guarantee against running away.
Mr Sancern did not deny the existence of forced labour.
But he disputed parts of the story, especially claims that police took bribes and turned a blind eye.
“This is not true,” he said without elaborating.
The reports have led to a dozen arrests, millions of pounds’ worth of seizures and proposals for new laws.
And police anti-human trafficking division chief Kornchai Klayklueng admitted that “a number of things, including the report about debt-bound labourers, interest us. We are looking into it and will prosecute.”