In what came as a shock to many, in February, the United States took the step of completely banning the import of goods made by slave labor. Indeed, President Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, closing an 86-year-old loophole that had allowed the United States to purchase foreign goods produced with child labor or forced labor. Hold the applause, for this moral awakening did not come from Washington, DC, but stemmed from the efforts of journalists working for The Associated Press as well as from Nestlé's surprising admission of guilt that its global supply chain relied on impoverished migrant workers in Thailand.
Faced with a media uproar, the Swiss giant was forced to carry out investigations of those abuses in an attempt to repair an image that had already been tarnished. And a sterling PR job has been done, with the press full of congratulations for Nestlé's honorable efforts to root out any further occurrences of slavery in its operations. In so doing, however, Nestlé only proved that there is scant difference between its corporate board and the actual Thai junta.
Comparing a military junta to one of the world's most successful multinational corporations may sound a little glib. Yet, even in strictly factual terms, the similarities are striking. Thailand's nominal GDP, for instance is $374 billion, with Nestlé's value sitting at around $247 billion. Nestlé employs 339,000 people in total across all operations, with the Thai junta employing 310,000 men and women in armed service. Both Nestlé and the Thai junta have entered a war of attrition with the European Parliament in recent years, most notably in Nestlé's case over certain unethical practices in the marketing of its baby milk, and most recently in the junta's case over its refusal of safe passage to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Both have also recently been implicated in the lack of action to stop serious human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry.
Moreover, Nestlé is currently involved in a desperate battle to undermine a lawsuit over child slavery in the Ivory Coast that has largely been missed by the world's media.As for the Thai junta itself, recent human rights abuses have been so numerous and so prevalent, that finding a suitable springboard to enter that particular discussion is a task in itself.
Enter Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin
The appointment of Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin in a role specifically designed to tackle human trafficking, one of Thailand's most persistently recurrent human rights issues, initially seemed encouraging. And yet, that same Paween is currently seeking political asylum in Australia after linking a number of senior military figures to local human trafficking rings. Of course, the junta has denied these claims, as would be expected, but the evidence would seem to overwhelmingly support the former police investigator's claims over those of the despotic Prayuth Chan-ocha. A former army general and self-proclaimed prime minister of Thailand following the April 2014 coup d'état, Prayuth is the head of the National Council for Peace and Order, a military junta that has concentrated all political power in its hands.
In a single year from the point Prayuth took power, arrests under the nation's famously strict lese majeste laws rose from two to a startling 46. Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code declares that anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent" will be punished with up to 15 years in prison, strengthening the near-divine respect the royal family commands. Perhaps even more startling than the numbers involved are the supposed offenses themselves, such as the case of a man facing 15 years in prison for a flippant aside about the king's dog. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, is the longest-serving monarch in the world.
Of course, the laws have far less to do with a declaration of love for the current king than with the fact that any questioning of authority also challenges the military's position - especially as the current king is suffering from increasingly poor health with an heir waiting in the wings who is far from popular with the Thai people. Indeed, the crown prince is desperately in need of the military's support if he is to ascend to the throne. Partnered with numerous cases of forced repatriation of refugees, multiple cases of horrific police attacks against various minorities, limits upon freedom of speech in the press and a commitment to denying the democratic process, the immediate future for Thailand's human rights record is bleak.
Beat That, Nestlé!
Nestlé, meanwhile, appears to be doing its best to beat Thailand's governing junta in the realm of human rights infractions. The baby milk scandal, for instance, revolved around disputes over a marketing campaign that sought to take advantage of unwary mothers in poor nations by convincing them to use Nestlé's powdered baby milk instead of breast milk, often at the expense of the child's health. Despite boycotts in Switzerland, the UK and the US over this practice, Nestlé forged ahead at the expense of millions of children across the globe.
The firm's relationship with unions is another telling issue: Nestlé now frequently chooses to locate production facilities in countries with lax labor laws after coming to blows (including physical blows) with unions elsewhere. Nestlé has also been criticized for its monopoly of bottled water in a large number of poorer countries while draining California of its water reserves to create that supply, during a serious four-year drought. All this is in addition to multiple accusations of being complicit in human trafficking and child slavery.
Nestlé has never been brought to task for such abuses because, like many other corporations, it benefits from special legal arrangements that enable it to escape prosecution, even when a crime has been committed. For example, its lawyers have entered into deferred and non-prosecution arrangements that usually end in out of court settlements. In 2000, the company settled and paid $14.6 million to Holocaust survivors over claims it had used slave labor during World War II. In 2003, to get out of a dispute involving its Poland Spring brand bottled water, Nestlé settled out of court for $12 million. As for its use of slave labor in Thailand, Nestlé conveniently "repented" just a few months before the United States pushed ahead with its trade ban. Yet again, Teflon Nestlé gave regulators the slip and emerged unscathed.
Although both Nestlé and the Thai junta have been caught out by the slavery scandal, at least in terms of media exposure, neither has faced any real consequences for their actions. Thailand's junta has exposed the international community's political impotence by simply continuing to commit human rights abuses through a two-faced courtship of both the United States and China. The world's power brokers are being rewarded for their indiscretions while the masses gaze on helplessly. It is apparent to the majority of people that the likes of these two should be made to face up to their crimes, but it would seem that the majority voice no longer matters.