Since 2015, IJM’s partnership with Walmart has brought about tremendous advances in measuring and combatting trafficking and abuse in the Thai fishing industry.
Prior to the Walmart Foundation’s engagement with IJM, there was no baseline study to determine the prevalence of trafficking on Thai fishing boats. A lack of proactive investigations and meaningful prosecution meant traffickers faced little risk of being caught, and migrant victims were more likely to be detained than provided with real protection and trauma-informed services.
Rampant trafficking and abuse in the Thai fishing industry
Thailand is home to one of the largest fishing industries in the world. For years, workers—typically men from neighbouring Cambodia and Myanmar—have been lured by traffickers who promise good pay and consistent work on boats in and around the Gulf of Thailand.
Instead, many of these men board the boats only to find that they have been tricked. They endure brutal exploitation, little to no pay and are murdered at sea.
Slavery thrives in this brutal and isolated environment—especially when paired with a criminal justice system that struggles to enforce existing anti-trafficking laws or hold criminals accountable.
Investing in cross-border programs that strengthen law enforcement intervention and collaboration
An initial grant from the Walmart Foundation in 2015 funded a baseline prevalence study to measure the rate of trafficking and abuse among migrant fishermen from Cambodia and Myanmar. This ground-breaking research showed the massive scale of labour trafficking of migrant fishermen, the common patterns of abuse across the industry, and historical ineffectiveness of justice systems to deliver real results for victims or to end impunity for traffickers.
This complex crime requires a cross-border solution to halt the trafficking of migrants into the industry and coordinate work in Cambodia and Myanmar to target the problem from the source side. Additional grants from 2016 to 2021 funded a new IJM office, and IJM staff in Bangkok came alongside Thai authorities to implement and enforce laws that targeted forced labour trafficking and the provision of care to survivors. This included taking on criminal cases to hold traffickers accountable, as well as working to repatriate survivors to their home countries.
The financial investment, influential leadership and trailblazing of the Walmart Foundation made it possible for IJM staff to implement cross-border programs that focused on strengthening law enforcement interventions and collaboration between source and destination communities. After the successful deployment of this model in the Cambodia-Thailand corridor, the work is now being replicated in the Myanmar-Thailand corridor.
Key Findings and Results
Exploitation is widespread
In 2016, baseline prevalence studies revealed a shocking reality. Of the migrant fishermen interviewed, 37.9% were identified as victims of trafficking, 31.5% witnessed a crewmate’s abuse at sea and 76.2% accrued debt prior to starting work.
IJM’s cases are the first regional Thai fishing cases in which victims were:
1. Identified in a third country (Malaysia/Indonesia)
2. Repatriated to their home country (Cambodia)
3. Participated in court processes that held traffickers accountable in both the source country (Cambodia) and destination country (Thailand).
A clear path for national governments
After working with and training Thai authorities, the Thai government has made strides to own and proactively pursue stronger anti-trafficking efforts as national laws are strengthened to protect workers from both trafficking and forced labour. IJM continues to work together with Thai officials to improve their effectiveness.
Though severe cases of trafficking have decreased, the crime of forced labour still exists within the industry. With additional funding from the Walmart Foundation, IJM will conduct further studies to identify the gaps that remain and tailor programs to address the most urgent needs. As we continue our collaborative work to strengthen government responses, we are especially focused on helping to build stronger protections for workers across the region.