Fellow Since 2006
SR Law Firm
This profile was prepared when Siriwan Vongkietpaisan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Siriwan Vongkietpaisan is reducing human trafficking and labor abuses, while establishing more protections for the rights of migrant workers in Thailand. By focusing on precedent-setting legal cases, education, and network building of monitoring groups, Siriwan and her law firm are reforming discriminatory laws, bringing traffickers to justice, and ensuring that poor and disadvantaged groups in Thailand have access to the legal system.
The New Idea
Siriwan is working to reduce human rights violations in Thailand and Asia. A lawyer, she focuses on illegal labor practices and trafficking of women and children. Realizing that dealing with such issues on a case by case basis is not efficient, Siriwan scrupulously picks particular cases that will have the most impact, both in terms of public visibility and support, and long-term legal and government reform. Working at the public level with legal aid and lobbying, Siriwan has initiated an awareness and education campaign to inform and educate people about human rights abuses in the region. Siriwan’s organization, SR Law, provides legal assistance to disadvantaged groups, victims of illegal trafficking, and victims of labor exploitation—many of them women and children from Burma or Cambodia. Using current and forthcoming test cases, Siriwan is putting pressure on public and government officials, lawyers, traffickers, employers and victims to recognize the rights of disadvantaged groups. Since most cannot afford legal fees, they are unaware of legal processes and of their protected rights under the law. She has also begun developing a network of similar organizations that lobby collectively for policy reform across Asia.
Because of the concealed nature of human trafficking, accurate statistics are impossible to know. However, an estimated 700,000 women and children are trafficked globally each year. A significant portion of are women and children from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and the People’s Republic of China who set out as economic migrants and were later forced into bonded labor. Regional economic disparities drive illegal migration into Thailand, presenting traffickers with opportunities to move some migrants into labor or sexual exploitation. A large number of victims work in debt bondage as traffickers confiscate their passports, demand repayment for their “purchase”, charge them for living expenses and care, and fine them for misbehavior. Traffickers also restrict victims’ movements, threaten and isolate them, and use violence as punishment for disobedience.Trafficking, debt bondage, forced labor, and other similar abuses constitute serious human rights violations. These rights are enumerated in international conventions that Thailand has ratified—committing the government to take the necessary steps to uphold them and to provide redress when violations occur. National legal provisions are designed for victims such as the Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act (1996) and the Measures in Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Women and Children Act (1997). Additional memorandums of understanding between government agencies and domestic citizen organizations have demanded that the training of police officers include instruction on the treatment of victims of human trafficking as opposed to illegal immigrant workers. Despite these laws, a significant challenge rests in the fact that a majority of the victims are illegal or ethnic minorities—individuals not recognized as citizens of Thailand and denied any legal protection or health care if arrested. When caught and while awaiting repatriation, victims become the responsibility of the public welfare department, receiving food and shelter as well as general information on the option of pursuing legal action against trafficking perpetrators. Relatively few will do so as language barriers, illiteracy, distrust of government officials, lengthy legal processes and fear of the traffickers all play a role. Litigation in Thailand is arduous and complex. Implementation or enforcement efforts are hindered by an overall lack of comprehensive and up-to-date information and access, as well as by corruption and by the implication of law enforcement officials in facilitating trafficking. Furthermore, many laws in Thailand are curtailed and not systematically enforced. Abusive employers of child workers have never been legally punished for treating other humans as slaves, despite an anti-slavery law in Thailand. Sex workers who have been lured into prostitution have never received compensation as victims of human trafficking from the state or the traffickers. The issues are prevalent but the solutions are often too narrow to fully redress the problems, and legal improvements are endlessly challenged by deeply ingrained prejudices against women and ethnic minorities.
Siriwan works to provide free legal aid to the poor while lobbying for major structural changes and policy reform at the local, national and international level to counter human rights abuses.Siriwan founded the SR Law Firm to provide preventive and remedial legal help to victims of trafficking and slavery. Many human rights victims—including 30 women and children from Myanmar detained in a garment factory in Thailand and denied their salary, a Thai woman lured to Japan for prostitution, and a 13-year-old girl servant being beaten and sexually abused in a Bangkok household—have received legal services from the SR Law Firm. Siriwan’s close relationship and experience with these victims and their stories has provided her with an understanding of how to begin reframing Thailand’s laws. When employers repeatedly refused to give the 30 victims from Myanmar their salaries and overtime pay, and labor officials insisted on the unlikelihood of employer payment due to the workers illegal alien status, and even lawyers refused to defend the case on the basis that labor laws are pertinent to only Thai nationals, Siriwan decided to work with legal officers. Engaging in a discussion with the Labor Department officers, she invited prosecutors, non-governmental labor, women and child rights organizations, and the department of Public Welfare and Labor to a roundtable discussion over the legal status of immigrants in Thailand. In collaboration with Home for Displaced Children (HDC) and the Immigration Office, Siriwan cross-checked all the workers’ information and submitted evidence of each victim to the court, requesting the head of HDC act as the intermediary for monetary transactions to the victims. Siriwan worked closely with the Criminal Court to file the first lawsuit against employers—by requesting that Thai laws apply to transnational labor workers and that compensation and overtime pay be granted, regardless of alien status. A year later, the historical verdict set new standards: (1) evidence of the victims’ labor in Thailand was approved; and (2) all workers are now entitled to the same labor benefits as Thai nationals, regardless of gender and legal status. In addition to providing direct legal aid, SR Law Firm approaches law enforcement agencies and asks them to assist in monitoring human rights violations. For example, a Memorandum of Understanding between government offices, police departments and the office of the prosecutor has been signed on the rights of women and children involved in prostitution, exploitative labor and illegal immigrant labor. In 2003, the registration of illegal immigrant workers, including women and children affected by human trafficking, was approved. This catalyzed a series of awareness-raising campaigns led by citizen organizations and aimed to teach illegal immigrants about their rights and advocate for the registration of all illegal immigrant workers. Siriwan coordinates with other organizations such as the Foundation for Child Development (led by Ashoka fellow Khemporn Wiroonrapun) and the Foundation for Women and Fight Against Child Exploitation. Siriwan also works closely with the Lawyers Council of Thailand as the Secretary General for the Sub-Committee on Women and Children. Moreover, SR Law Firm also provides free counseling to over 1,000 victims and clients.Awareness raising and dissemination of information is a very important aspect of Siriwan’s work. Apart from advocating and developing networks, Siriwan tries to change the perception of citizens and victims, making them aware of their own rights and sensitizing them to the rights of others. Siriwan works primarily in school settings, with women’s groups, and with law school students to promote this change. She is also publishing, in partnership with Ashoka Fellow Khemporn Wiroonrapun, a manual about how to participate in the global protection of international illegal immigrants.Despite the issues she faces on a daily basis, Siriwan is optimistic about the future. Although SR Law Firm is a small organization, Siriwan has been able to achieve a tremendous impact with her threefold strategy of precedent-setting cases, advocacy/education and networking. When Siriwan began tackling cases of human trafficking and illegal immigrants, there were few lawyers working on these issues. Since then, her impact has been considerable in drawing present and future lawyers into the fight and in reforming and enforcing current legal standards.
Born in Buriram in northeastern Thailand, Siriwan lost her mother at a young age and was raised by her sister in Bangkok. She studied law at Ramkhamhaeng University and took eight years to finish her degree as she helped her family with their business and worked as a seamstress in a small garment factory. While in university, she joined a student group and was exposed to fundraising and campaigning for orphans and retirement centers. In 1986, she was voted president of the club and dealt for the first time with gender issues as male members complained that women attempted to control the discussion forum. Upon graduation, she joined the credit card unit of Central Department stores as a loan officer and spent time authorizing court cases and advocating for Central as a lawyer. In 1995 she joined Citibank as a loan and credit officer, assisting to prosecute people not in compliance with Citibank agreements. A friend introduced Siriwan to Charit Meesit, an Ashoka Fellow who runs the Labor Law Education Program. Siriwan quickly found her niche in the pro-bono section of the firm and worked on a wide range of issues, including children, the environment, and gender. Faced with highly emotional and complex cases, she decided to focus on cases that could prove to be landmarks, yielding verdicts that could be readily applied to other situations. As the number of cases grew, Siriwan chose to create an independent and self-sustaining law firm, SR Law, which includes for-profit work while running an independent pro-bono center especially for women and children.