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Home arrow Sociology arrow Human rights and social justice in a global perspective : an introduction to international social work


This chapter has illustrated how the three vulnerabilities—poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to education—can lead to human slavery, a horror many thought long dead. Although it is experienced differently in different cultures and the specific vulnerabilities will vary from place to place, the phenomenon of enslavement remains. Social workers can play a unique role in stopping this violation of human rights. We are equipped to work on the micro level with the victim and also on the macro level to stop the conditions that create the atmosphere where this can occur.


Thailand has received a lot of international attention for the existence of sex trafficking within its borders; however, labor trafficking is also a major issue in this country. Whether the purpose of the exploitation is for labor or sex, those affected tend to be citizens of neighboring countries, often irregular migrants. They often migrate to Thailand of their own accord and then find themselves in trafficking situations after their arrival (US Department of State, 2013b). However, there are a number who are trafficked from the outset, especially those who will be sexually exploited.

While prostitution has existed in Thailand for hundreds of years, as it has in many countries, the sex trade expanded greatly during the Vietnam War when American soldiers would visit Thailand on “R&R” (rest and relaxation). Thai culture has had a large impact on the development of the sex trade in Thailand. Traditionally, there has been no stigma placed on men using prostitutes. Thailand was a polygamous society for many years and remnants of that remained in the acceptability of male use of prostitutes.

The economic boom in the 1990s added to this. While wealthy men had always been able to afford prostitutes, it was not until the economic boom that men of average and low wages were able to do so as well. This fueled the demand for low-cost prostitutes and resulted in a greater number of girls being brought from the north of Thailand, since that area did not experience the economic boom until many years after central Thailand did. Consequently, these girls were still living in dire poverty and seeking a means to support their family. Theravada Buddhism favors boys over girls, and this can result in a society that regards women as objects to be used (Bales,

2004). Boys are favored because if a boy serves as a monk for a period of time, it is believed this service adds a great deal of good karma toward his parents’ reincarnation. There is no such benefit to having a daughter.

While sex tourism in Thailand has received a great deal of press, the vast majority of prostitutes are not enslaved. Those who are serve the “lower” end of the market, Thai laborers (Bales, 2004). In Thailand, most of those in the sex industry are aged 16-25 years old, while young children are much more difficult to locate, although they are forced to work in this industry as well (Blackburn et al., 2010). One study found that 10% of its sex worker sample were trafficked—of these, 15% had been tricked or forced, and 89% had been under 18 years old when they began. However, the vast majority (95%) was Thai, and this should be taken into account (Decker, McCauley, Phuengsamran, Janyam, & Silverman, 2011).

In the past, those who were trafficked for sexual exploitation were poor Thai women primarily from the northern and more rural areas of Thailand. However, in recent years, they are increasingly from other countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Whether they are from Thailand or other countries, they are typically members of ethnic minorities, such as the Hill Tribes (Jayagupta, 2009; US Department of State, 2013b). The girls and women often come to Bangkok of their own accord in search of better opportunities. They may be escaping poverty, searching for a job, or simply looking for more excitement than is found in their village. In some cases, they are aware that they will be working as prostitutes, but they have little idea as to what that will actually entail, such as the conditions of the brothel and the number of customers they will be expected to serve each night. In other instances, they have no idea; they believe they will be working in a restaurant or other business. There is an informal network that will arrange for the girls’ transport. Often these brokers are known in the villages and are trusted.

In some cases, those trafficked are refugees, such as from Myanmar. As noted in Chapter 5, these refugees have been restricted to camps and unable to earn a living legally, causing them to resort to working illegally to earn money, which creates vulnerability for trafficking. In other cases, they are from countries that lack the economic opportunities of Thailand, such as Laos or Cambodia.

A review of research regarding children who migrated from Laos to Thailand for work found that in the vast majority of cases, the children voluntarily migrated of their own accord. One-third of them wound


up in the sex industry, but the majority were in other fields, including domestic labor, construction, factory work, and agriculture (Huijsmans, 2008; US Department of State, 2013b). Children have been trafficked to sell flowers or to beg for money on the streets of Bangkok. In most cases, these children are not Thai (“Children trafficked,” 2012; US Department of State, 2012b). For many years, children born to Burmese refugees in Thailand were not granted citizenship, rendering them stateless and excluding them from the benefits of citizenship and making them vulnerable to trafficking.

Men from Cambodia or Myanmar are frequently found to have been trafficked in the fishing industry. One study found that 57% of workers on these fishing boats experienced forced labor (US Department of State, 2013b). They endure 20-hour working days, lack of food, and physical abuse while at sea for several years at a time (“Men trafficked,” 2011; Nadi, 2013; US Department of State, 2013b). If a person is too ill or weak to work, it is common for him to be killed (US Department of State, 2013b).

Thailand has been trying to combat trafficking through a multipronged approach. First, it passed legislation in 1996 that provided stiffer penalties for customers of prostitution, brothel owners, and parents who sell their daughters into prostitution. These penalties were even stiffer if the girl is underage. In 2008, the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act took effect, which further increased jail time and financial penalties for traffickers (Blackburn et al., 2010). However, awareness of this law remains low, even among law enforcement (US Department of State, 2012b).

In 2013, Thailand approved a new “Master Plan” to improve its response to trafficking. This plan would improve monitoring for labor trafficking, addressing sex tourism, addressing law enforcement interventions, and providing sufficient resources to accomplish its goals (“Cabinet approves,” 2013). This plan prevented Thailand’s ranking from being downgraded in the US Trafficking in Persons report of 2013 (US Department of State, 2013b). However, Thailand is not yet a party to Palermo Protocol, although it signed it in 2001 (United Nations, 2013).

Thailand has been criticized by the United States for the extraordinarily long time that it takes to process trafficking cases through its judicial system (“US concerned,” 2013; US Department of State, 2012b). Additionally, the Trafficking in Persons Report states that the number of those convicted of trafficking is “disproportionately small” compared to the scope of the problem (US Department of State, 2012b). As noted in other nations, corruption of police is part of the problem, with brothels paying protection to them or even police outright owning the brothel (Blackburn et al., 2010; US Department of State, 2013b).

More attention needs to be given to the reintegration phase. As noted, the legal process is exceedingly slow, causing some to give up in frustration. Thailand provides several protection centers and a number of temporary shelters for those who have been trafficked. In them, survivors are offered psychological services, medical treatment, and vocational training. However, some survivors view it more as a detention center, causing them to avoid it (Jayagupta, 2009). Foreign survivors of trafficking, especially women who were sexually exploited, are required to stay there and may not leave without an escort (US Department of State, 2013b). Additionally, the main center—Kredtrakarn Centre, located outside Bangkok—receives a number of official visitors, resulting in a lack of privacy for those living there (Jayagupta, 2009). Services are lacking for children who have been trafficked, and if they are unwilling to testify against their trafficker, they are required to return to their home country, often resulting in their retrafficking (US Department of State, 2013b).

In some cases, survivors learn a trade that they are unable to apply when back in their home village. They are typically returning to the same lack of economic opportunity that they left initially, which can compel them to migrate again and possibly be retrafficked. In addition, they may face stigma due to their experiences while trafficked (“Family pressures,” 2011; Jayagupta, 2009). As many of those who were found to be trafficked in Thailand have migrated of their own accord due to economic opportunities, it cannot be assumed that simply informing people of trafficking will prevent it from occurring (Huijsmans, 2008). People will act to meet their needs, even if it bears a risk. Therefore, economic development in their home regions should be an important focus.

What Can I Do Now?

  • • Use your consumer power. Buy products that are made as “Fair Trade.” This can include coffee marked as Fair Trade or rugs marked with the “Rugmark” label to show they were not produced with child labor. Boycotts are often not encouraged as that only directly hurts the slaves since the market for the product dries up. You can check companies’ records of human rights at Learn more at www.
  • • Take the quiz at to see how many slaves work for you based on your buying habits, including clothing, food, and electronics. Educate others about the problem. Break the ignorance. MTV has excellent resources located at http:// and
  • • Convince those you know to stand against the buying of people for the sexual use of others—whether in prostitution, pornography, or strip clubs.
  • • Support groups that are working to solve the problem. See the section on Web sites to learn more about these organizations.
  • • Ask your state representatives to pass strong antitrafficking legislation. Monitor your state at the Polaris Project Web site.
  • • Report suspected cases of trafficking. Call the hotline at 1—888— 3737-888 to report cases of suspected trafficking.
  • • Know that although this chapter focuses on citizens of the Global South who have been trafficked, it happens frequently to those in the Global North as well.

What Can I Do as a Professional Social Worker?

  • • Work to assist victims of human trafficking within the United States. Various NGOs in cities such as San Diego (Project Safe Haven), New York City (ECPAT-USA), and Washington, DC (Polaris Project) are working in this arena.
  • • Work for an international humanitarian organization such as Save the Children, World Vision, or Catholic Relief Services.

• Work with a community development organization such as Oxfam to help prevent the conditions that make people vulnerable to trafficking.

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