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Conference paper

Risky Business: Debt Bondage International Labour Migration from Northern Thailand

Date

2002

Authors

Teresa Sobieszczyk

Abstract

In Northern Thailand, as in other parts of the world, debt bondage unauthorized recruitment offers some potential migrants an opportunity to access what they believe to be lucrative overseas opportunities. Many potential international labour migrants cannot raise enough money to pay for the travel expenses and recruiter's commission at the time of their migration, fees which often amount to the equivalent of several years’ salary for unskilled workers in Thailand. They therefore may arrange to go abroad with a recruiter who pays these expenses up front and then turns them over to an overseas employer who reimburses the recruiter for their travel expenses and pays the recruiter’s commission. The migrant workers are then held in ‘debt bondage’ by the overseas employer, usually for a set number of months or until they have repaid a fixed amount of money which usually includes a very high rate of interest.

The focus on the human rights abuses of trafficking and debt bondage labour migration has, in fact, had the significant impact of garnering attention and financial support for prohibiting trafficking (and prostitution) from the Clinton administration as well as the UN and various governments in Southeast Asia, including the Thai government. But, the over-emphasis on recruiters who trick ‘unknowing’ Thai women into taking their chances abroad and on the seemingly inevitable exploitation of such women has had the unfortunate impact of drawing attention away from the structural and gender inequalities within the global capitalist economic system that make overseas labour opportunities in prostitution, domestic work, and the service industry the most attractive employment opportunities available to many poor rural women. It has drawn attention from the structural inequities in the Thai system that have limited and continue to limit access to high quality education and labour markets within Thailand for many young Thai and ethnic minority women (and men) in rural areas. It has drawn attention from the agency of women who, in part because their economic options at home are limited, actively choose to go abroad as debt bondage migrants in order to capitalize on higher paying economic opportunities and hopefully improve their own and often their family’s socioeconomic status.21 And finally, it has drawn attention from the restrictions on authorized labour migration, which, in the context of demand for foreign workers among overseas employers and demand for well-paid positions abroad among potential migrants, raise potential profits from labour recruitment, attracting unauthorized recruiters and organized crime into the business of labour recruiting and trafficking and likely increasing the degree of coercion and exploitation experienced by some male and female labour migrants.

In the end, it is likely that the greatest opportunity for halting debt bondage labour recruitment, trafficking, and unauthorized labour migration will involve enacting broader economic, political, social, and legal change within the context of the international labour migration system and the global political economy. In order to move towards such change and towards addressing labour exploitation in all its forms, in my view, we will have to move beyond the narrow human rights focus of much of the literature on Thai international labour migration and trafficking to date. Instead, as I have attempted to do here, we will need to acknowledge and take into account the diversity of experiences of debt bondage migrants and trafficked migrants in different service and sex industries, explore in greater depth the various causes of trafficking and why it is perpetuated in particular settings, and situate the experiences of trafficked workers in the context of other types of labour migration--both authorized and unauthorized--that also frequently involve exploitation to varying degrees.

Conference name

IUSSP Regional Population Conference on ‘Southeast Asia’s Population in a Changing Asian Context

Conference location

Bangkok, Thailand

Number of pages

19

Keywords

debt, bondage, sex slaves

Economic sectors

Other

Content types

Statistics on work and life conditions and Systemic/state violation of right/freedom

Target groups

(Im)migrants workers

Geographical focuses

Thailand

Languages

English