Human Trafficking

Trafficking in human beings means "All acts and attempted acts involved in the recruitment, transportation within or across borders, purchase, sale, transfer, receipt or harbouring of a person involving the use of deception, coercion (including the use or threat of force of the abuse of authority) or debt bondage for the purpose of placing or holding such person, whether for pay or not, in involuntary servitude (domestic, sexual or reproductive) in forced or bonded labour, or in slavery-like conditions, in a community other than the one in which such person lived at the time of the original deception, coercion, or debt bondage (1).

Interpol takes this seriously, as one of its top 4 most important crime programs. The United Nations is also very active in this field. Governments tend to follow suit.

Personal Experiences

Personally, I have no problem with Thais working overseas as long as their agents do not engage in deception. Typically, this is a job in which the Thais are paid wages greater than they could make in Thailand but less than minimum wage in the host country. It's a win-win situation for both employer and employee, whereby both get what they agreed to. The only losers are the lowest class of people in the host country, who blew their chances of an education and many higher opportunities.

Unfortunately, it is commonly the case that the Thais end up with something far less than they agreed to. In fact, they often find themself in a very bad situation entirely different from what they were promised.

Commonly, they are offered jobs in factories, restaurants or households as maids, but instead wind up locked inside a facility which they cannot escape from, in either a sweatshop factory at much lower wages than promised, or else forced prostitution in various ways. The worst ways are whereby they are chained to a bed and forced to service many customers per day, with more than 10 per day not uncommon, and the pimps keep most of the money.

For example, upon arrival, young ladies are often locked inside an "apartment" building which is actually a brothel upstairs, get beaten into submission, raped, their self-esteem damaged, and then forced to give sex for cheap to many customers per day until they pay back the debt owed to their agents. (After the pimp takes their cut plus the cut of the trafficker, the lady gets just a few dollars per sex act.)

Understand: These people almost always trusted their agent, and were simply betrayed.

They are often country people who were raised in a community where they could trust their neighbors and community, and not accustomed to dealing with urban tricksters.

If they ever petition for redress, and the Thai police find their agent, their agent will usually say that they brokered the person to another agent and it's the other agent's fault.

The lady is shamed almost beyond comprehension, and is further blackmailed -- that if she tells the authorities, then everyone in her community will be told she is a prostitute, and possibly bodily harm will befall her.

That is what you read in the newspapers and magazines, and from other sources as well. And it is true.

Besides prostitution, there are other hazards of human trafficking. There are also people who simply disappear, or who die in sealed storage containers and other difficult means of smuggling. I've not just read this, but I have met people who knew someone who died like this.

On the other hand:

Many illegal workers go overseas and do get a fair deal, as agreed in the plan, and send a lot of money home.

However, countless others got a raw deal. It seems to depend mostly on the agent overseas who receives them. They must be truly trustworthy, and having other close friends and relatives overseas to "audit" their arrival and handling -- completely audit, with a personal visit.

Let me give you a fairly representative example from my own experience:

NOTE: I keep everyone's name anonymous and do not give enough detail to trace anyone down, either the criminal or the victim. It is not my interest to expose any particular individuals. It is my purpose to generally inform the public about what kinds of things happen. This is because my experiences are merely "drops in the bucket" about what goes on in this big bad world, and the best thing I can do is warn others in general without endangering myself.

First, briefly, I know guys who have been offered money in order to sign a sham marriage with a Thai for the purpose of human trafficking, whereby the plan is to get a travel visa based on marriage. I've been offered this, too, and of course rejected the offer. Some others have done the deed and gotten paid at least part of what they were promised. Some have become regulars at this, and worked themselves into the smuggling network in some role of world traveller, going from country to country.

Note: The embassies are not required to give a travel visa based on a signed marriage, as they are on to this trick. You are strongly advised to not participate in this, no matter what your agent may try to convince you of. You should also know that crooks are notoriously dishonest about such things, and often reneg on deals anyway. You do the deed, then you do not get paid in full, if at all. In fact, you might get blackmailed and squeezed for money yourself!

When an underworld figure renegs on a deal, what are you going to do? Call the police? Take them to court? Especially if you've already become a crook yourself? Do you think anyone will sympathize enough with a crook ripped off by another crook and whining about it?

Human trafficking is a lucrative business for some agents, though it also costs them big bucks. The agents often do spend a considerable amount of money on bribes with their connections. Just the price of an airplane ticket is well beyond the reach of most provincial Thais. There must be debts involved, those debts must be paid back, and the creditors are sure to exert controls to make sure the debts are paid, because people are notorious for getting the benefits of travel and then walking away without repaying those who made it possible.

However, a lot of agents even charge poor, dumb Thais for simple things like simply getting a passport from the Thailand Foreign Ministry, believe it or not.

The debts are usually exaggerated grossly, however they can be.

For as much as I know, I'm sure I know very little compared to what other people know. I have never looked into these matters. I've simply been exposed to them occasionally in my casual life in Thailand.

For example:

In shopping at a neighborhood mom-and-pop style shop, I met a middle-aged businesslady who knew a lot of people in the community, selling them her wide array of goods and brokering a few services related to home improvement. Included in this was maids. She regularly supplied Burmese people as maids and shop workers. (I never accepted one.) They made typically 3000 baht per month ($75) plus got room and board, which is GREAT for Burmese who otherwise toil or languish in the village and make a lot less than that. As far as I could tell, these Burmese were not exploited or abused, and got the deal they had bargained for. Admittedly, I don't know what they paid their agents to bring them to Bangkok, as I never asked, but they seemed content in their Bangkok environment, and were free to go anywhere in their free time. sex was never offered to me or anyone else I knew. The businesslady seemed pretty straightforward. However, I didn't pry into her business.

Over time, this shop lady and I became familiar with each other. She could speak good English, as could other members of her Chinese-Thai family, and she and I went out partying once at the stylish venue of her rich friends, who seemed to like to flaunt their wealth yet seemed conscious of their spending. I kind've noticed an oddity when I would be introduced as an "American" friend to some of them, as if that was something of special importance.

Then, one day, she arranged an appointment between me and her "brother". It was something related to what some of her other friends do, too. It seemed to be some mystery things, but it was clearly important to her that I meet and talk with her "brother".

Her brother asked me to help in moving Thais to other countries. All I was asked to do was help in getting a visa as an American, and they would pay me for this. I waved it off in disinterest, but he got pushy, saying that it was big money for him, and he would pay me cash. All he needed to do was get them to another agent in the other country (not necessarily the USA), by this person travelling with me. That's all. He would be paid after they pass thru immigration in the other country, as that was all his job was. All I had to do was get the visa into her passport, nothing more.

I asked who these people are and found out they were known people from poor provinces who they had met thru their communities, and had come to Bangkok to work as maids and laborers, or were related to those.

These may have been people sourced thru a trusted source -- trusted by the person going overseas.

I asked what these people would be doing after they arrive at the other country.

His reply was that it wasn't his business and he didn't care. All he had to do was get them thru immigration.

What if the agent threw them into a sweatshop or a brothel?

In short, he didn't care, he just wanted his commission. If something bad happened, they could blame the agent overseas. He didn't care about anything but the money he would get, and I would get a lot of money, too, so he said.

Where did the money come from? From the agent overseas via him and on to me.

I started to talk about debt bondage and articles in the newspaper but he wasn't interested. He was persistent and didn't want to discuss such details. After I politely stated my final rejection of his proposal, he was just quiet and politely left, but the friendliness of the businesslady and her associates completely died after word spread around that I was unwilling. Another lady tried to talk me into it, but when I explained to her gently that I thought it was wrong and dishonest to the trafficked person for nobody to care, they lost interest in me completely as a "friend". I did not reject them, and I played along a little too see what they were up to, albeit not too much, but it was clear to me that if I wasn't willing to really do this, then I was no longer of interest to them.

After that, the lady at the shop was polite but not friendly.

Other foreigners here have been given the same and similar offers.

If you get caught, the penalty might be just two weeks in the horrendous immigration jail.

You may get on the criminals list of your local consulate, and they may not be sympathetic to any calls for help in your future because they question the kinds of problems you get yourself into.

Would you really get paid by the crooks? Maybe not. Maybe late. Maybe partial. Maybe contingent upon getting another visa ... who knows. It is common for crooks to reneg on a deal after they get you to do what they want. What are you going to do about it?

My strong advice is to not get into this kind of thing, nor this kind of community, no matter how desperate for money you may become. If you run out of money, better to call home and fly out on a debt than to cross the line of human trafficking or other criminal activity. You could be held liable for some really bad things as an accomplice, including death of the trafficked person. Better to sit on the street with a cup and beg. I've seen expats do that, and put money into their cup. It is better than stepping over the line.

It's bad to take risks with other peoples' lives, in addition to your own bad karma. It's understandable if you are trying to help them, but if you ever do not heed my advice and do step over this line to "help" someone, then you must be able to trust the agents in both countries and should have a trusted auditor in the other country, too. Otherwise, chances may be that it's really bad.

Even if you're a psychopath, you should consider the risks of your own liability.

The same applies to foreigners coming to Thailand, both expats from wealthy Western countries and poor people from other Asian countries.

They are often promised work. But there are endless delays in payments, and they are basically paid subsistence wages while the employer claims to not have the money or expecting some big payout coming down the road ... but an investigation into the employer's lifestyle shows lavish spending out of sight of the employees, and a pattern of these down-the-road-big-money stories to get people to work now. The employer owes months of back wages, but is blowing such sums on bargirls and stuffing away other money into offshore bank accounts.

If you're working without a work permit, then you have no legal recourse, except to mutiny the coworkers or threaten trash your employer's name. Both can be risky to your continued existence in Thailand, and what better options do you and your coworkers have for paid work?

Many people find themselves trapped here in Thailand, powerless and forced to work at lower wages than they expected, with both expat bosses and Thai mafia.

Understand, most mainstream, middle class businesses do pay responsibly. Those who don't are usually the mafia's questionable businesses and some ostentatious and powerful Thais who think they are above the law (and might seem to be). You should get to know the boss, not just the manager above you, before committing to work. If there is any question about the top boss's character, then look elsewhere. Check reliable references when you can.

Thai culture contributes to the problem. Children are taught to obediently respect older and higher class people. The education system is based more on rote memorization, not thinking for yourself. I have seen some mafia people use cultural behavior to "force" people to make decisions and do things which they do not want to do. If they start to say no, then sheer intimidation is tried, which sometimes progresses to force.

If someone is violated, then they might go to the police. But what if the police are paid off by the rich and powerful abuser?

Most lower class people who are violated are too shy or weak to go to the authorities. Thai culture does not have an "All people are created equal, and granted certain inalienable rights..." ideology. People know their level of status in society.

However, what is "free"? They may be poor and desperate. Maybe they are so dumb and shiftless that they sit around and watch TV all day, whereby they have no other purpose in life except to serve the more industrious as slaves or near-slaves. So you "save" them, but they will return to the same situation. They may not do anything unless someone pushes them.

You can't save people from themselves, and many people aren't worth the time and effort of higher level people, relative to other needs.

You must judge it on a case by case basis. If they have self-initiative and other options, and are the victim of being tricked, that's one thing. But if they're pretty dumb anyway, should you take risks to save someone from themselves? After you "save" them, they may just return to the same situation.

"Debt bondage" is a topic worth explaining.

Thais usually want to work overseas for one reason: To get higher wages.

Often, however, the laborers are tricked. It goes something like this:

A mafia "employer" located overseas (Los Angeles, Europe, the Middle East, etc.), wants cheap (or free) labor. They might be running a brothel, or a sweatshop factory, or something else.

The employer has contacts with a "jobs broker", who sells imported Thais into jobs. The jobs broker knows employers who are looking for people who can be controlled or intimidated to do the kind of work desired by the employer.

The jobs broker depends upon a Thailand based "recruiters" to supply Thais. The Thailand recruiter must find willing Thais, get them a travel visa, and get them onto the airplane. (Sometimes, it is a boat.) This sometimes requires bribing embassy people or else faking documents.

The middleman recruiter is paid a fixed fee per person trafficked.

Sometimes the "jobs broker" and the "recruiter" are the same person. It depends upon the size of the operation.

The fee which goes to the "jobs broker" and/or "recruiter" is ultimately paid by the laborer, and is high. The laborer might pay $4000 but they think that they will make $15,000 per year, so they plan on a profit of $11,000 per year, even if they must work 7 days a week, 12 hours a day.

In Thailand, the typical monthly salary for an unskilled laborer is $75 to $100 per month, or about $1200 per year. The job might be hard, such as working rice fields or in a sweatshop factory.

The laborer borrows money from the community to pay the middleman. This is the most important fact, and what limits their options later.

Some recruiters are tricky. They tell the Thais that they will get paid more than they really will. This does not affect the recruiter's future. They get the same commission.

The laborer gets to the other country but finds out that the wages are not so good.

They have expectations from their families back in Thailand, plus they have debts from people they borrowed money from. If the creditor is the mafia, then their family will be pressured to pay back the debt.

Upon arrival, their passport is taken from them, and they are scared into thinking that if they run away and tell the police, then they will go to prison for a long time. Many people tell this story to them, and they believe it because that is what everyone says.

If the laborer is a young lady, she may be eased into prostitution. She works at a restaurant. Maybe she does not get paid her wages in full, but who can she complain to, since she is working illegally? She is scared into thinking that the police will arrest her and send her home, and she will be a failure to her debt-ridden family.

She sees other ladies making more money because they go with men. Over time, surrounded by these peers, she may be persuaded. She keeps it secret from her family, telling them she has a good job. She sends money home. This encourages others to use the recruiter and go overseas. They find themselves in the same position.

(Often, the lady is not "eased" into prostitution, but is beaten and raped into submission, perhaps even chained to a bed and forced to serve established clientele.)

The recruiter might also pay commissions to others for helping find laborers, convincing them to trust the recruiter, and so on. These procurers can be either Thai villagers or people already overseas, e.g., friends who have already been tricked but are lonely for village companionship and want a commission, too, to help pay their debts.

Sometimes, an expat falls in love with one of these "waitresses" in their home country, and over time finds out the basics of her situation. Her employer is often a strict disciplinarian and forceful (sometimes necessary, because lowly staff are lazy and poorly self-disciplined). He wants to "free" her. Free her from what? If she quits her job, how will she pay her debt? How will she change her situation and that of her family? What does "freedom" mean to these people?!? Free to do WHAT?

If he wants to pay off the debt, then fine. But he should find out the situation, and then put his money where his mouth is.

If he goes to the authorities and shuts down the illegal traficking operation, then he puts a lot of people at risk. They must pay back their debts, the money borrowed from their community to pay the fee. You can close one illegal operation, but another will open, and in the mean time there will be more trauma back home. Maybe a sibling will start working at a go-go bar in Bangkok to pay back the debts.

There are not simple and easy solutions to these problems, and Westerners should not judge too quickly and try to preach.

The best solution is prevention, which means education of the villagers.

However, most Thais know this already, by reading newspapers and magazines. Some very rural and functionally illiterate ones don't, however. Some poor ones, however, are willing to take risks, or are gullible enough to believe traffickers' tricks.

Sometimes, it is even students, such as graduates with no job but family pressures to send money home, who enter similar situations. Their family has paid for their university education but they have no job to be proud of. They have siblings of university age. So they take risks.

I've seen this myself, suspecting that the "trusted" trafficker is really tricking her. But she wants to believe the trafficker referred by her friend already overseas, and disbelieve my analysis. She doesn't know much about the particular place she is going. So I have given the lady a stake in contacting me back, only to find that her email starts going unanswered and her mailbox fills up shortly after she leaves, and others lose contact with her mysteriously, too. Things are amiss. Apparently, it was not the real job she was expecting.

She will never tell her family the truth.

Remember, these are drops in the bucket. You will never make much of a dent in human nature and world affairs by fighting for the lower classes. However, you can protect yourself and your close associates. For starters, you should understand what you are dealing with, not see it in idealistic and naive rich Westerners' ways.

To report human trafficking of children, just send e-mail to

Trafficking in human beings means "All acts and attempted acts involved in the recruitment, transportation within or across borders, purchase, sale, transfer, receipt or harbouring of a person involving the use of deception, coercion (including the use or threat of force of the abuse of authority) or debt bondage for the purpose of placing or holding such person, whether for pay or not, in involuntary servitude (domestic, sexual or reproductive) in forced or bonded labour, or in slavery-like conditions, in a community other than the one in which such person lived at the time of the original deception, coercion, or debt bondage (1).

Interpol takes this seriously, as one of its top 4 most important crime programs. See Interpol's history and viewpoint at

See also: UNIFEM, UNDP, SeaWatch."Trafficking in Women and Children in the Mekong sub-Region Resource Kit." 1998.
Available at:

 > History, culture, situation > Journal > Human trafficking

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