Human Rights

Slavery at sea

The next time you enjoy a fish dinner, think about this:

Thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia set sail on Thai fishing boats every day, but many are unwilling seafarers — slaves forced to work in brutal conditions under threat of death.

The day Hla Myint saw the sea for the first time was when traffickers delivered him, after a week’s trek through the jungle from Myanmar, to a ship on Thailand’s coast.

He said it was the beginning of seven months of “hell”, during which there were beatings “every day, every hour”.

His is one of a multitude of stories of slavery in Thailand’s multi-million dollar fishing industry, which campaigners say relies on forced labour to provide seafood for restaurants and supermarkets around the world.

Hla Myint decided to escape — throwing himself into choppy waters and clinging to a life buoy for five hours before reaching land — after seeing his captain kill a crewmate.

The man, who had been caught trying to escape, was savagely beaten and tortured in front of the rest of the fishermen.

“Later they took him to the back of the ship, stood him on the edge and shot him in the head. My heart pounded so hard when I saw that,” said Hla Myint, whose name AFP has changed to protect his identity.

Now he works with a local aid group helping others to flee.
Life on the boats is incredibly hard. Men toil for up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, only able to snatch a few moments for food and rest between hauling nets, according to a report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Some boats use “mother ships” to refuel and take on new crew to avoid returning to land and many fishermen spend months or even years trapped in waters as far away as Somalia, the IOM said.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who wrote the report, said marine police in one Thai coastal area told him they found up to 10 bodies a month washed up on the shore.

In a 2009 study, more than half of Cambodian migrants trafficked onto Thai boats surveyed by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) said they had seen their captains killing one of their colleagues.

But Mana Sripitak, of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, said it was “impossible” that forced labour was used, saying migrants were willing workers.

Well– OK then. Never mind.

The Thai fishing industry is a lucrative business. According to official figures, 16.95 billion baht ($565 million) worth of fish was hauled into Thailand from the sea in 2010.

China, the European Union, the United States and Japan were among the major export destinations.
Robertson said thousands of people had been trafficked onto boats over the last decade.

“This has been essentially a lawless industry for years and within that the system of brokers and trafficking has grown up as the defacto model for a fishing boat captain… They know who to call,” he said.

He urged governments and consumers to boycott wild-caught fish from Thailand unless the industry reforms.

That would seem the least we could do.