If this column, along with others, is returning time and again to the
issue of slavery in fishing it's because the subject has been hardly catching
public attention. But, now, as the overwhelming amount – an explosion really – of
information that keeps unfolding cannot be ignored, it seems to have made it.
To catch the world's attention it needed a year-long investigation by the Associated Press*) entitled ‘Are slaves catching the fish you buy?’
The AP reported of hundreds men trapped and held in cages on one or more remote
Indonesian islands in the Arafura Sea, a figure that swelled to at least 4,000
as the horror unfolded.
They slept in cramped accommodation, without toilets, showers,
mattresses, and only minimum cooking facilities. When onboard they were
employed in 20 to 22-hour shifts, kicked, beaten or whipped with stingray tails
whenever complained or tried to rest.
They were paid little or nothing. A runaway slave told AP that a great
many had died at sea. "Those who're eating this fish should remember
us!" he said.
Wake up call
In my opinion, the reporters who broke open
this misery deserve the Pulitzer Prize (our nomination) for blasting the hideous
truth into everybody's eyes and for instigating counter-slavery activity. Now, everybody and their
brothers jump onboard the ‘Astonished Public Opinion’ ship. Ministers of all
ranks have woken up to the ongoing scourge of suffering and misery and are calling
Last February, The Lancet Global Health and
Reuters published reports confirming the inhumane living and work conditions,
and the repeated sexual and/or physical abuse suffered by the slaves,
persisting health problems and symptoms of anxiety, depression and
post-traumatic stress disorder. Some suffered work injuries, including back
and neck damage and the loss of a body part. Methods of violence were often
extreme. They were beaten up, dragged around, cut with a knife and shot at.
Initially came the denials: "There
is no forced labour in the Thai fisheries industry" said Thai Deputy Prime
Minister and Minister of Defense Gen Prawit Wongsuwarn. However, he admitted
that he "did not know" what was happening when Thai vessels were in
Indonesian waters, and did not discount the possibility that they might change
their flag over there.
Thai police head Lt. Gen. Saritchai
Anekwiang denied mistreatment on the boats and said that the crews were all
Thai, (sic) that most of them are happy with few of them sick and willing to go
home, "while the boat conditions are good".
Notwithstanding, the Thai
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had said to the Bangkok Post of late March that his
"government would step up efforts to combat the scourge, increase
surveillance, monitor, and prosecute those responsible", who should be
punished and not given any licenses to operate businesses in Thailand.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at least
1.6 million foreign migrant workers, most of them employed in the fishing
industry, are registered with the government and have the same labour protections
as Thai workers and Thailand has a law against human trafficking. For causing
death there's the death penalty, and for severe injury there is a maximum
sentence of life imprisonment and $12,300 fine.
Also, an Indonesian minister has vowed to crack down
on trafficking and slavery on the country's territory.
Skippers abandoned enslaved fishermen there after the Indonesian
Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Ms Susi Pudjiastuti declared a moratorium
on foreign fishing in an effort to identify unlicensed ships and prosecute
poachers. As soon as the Indonesian authorities announced that they were
undertaking release of all slaves, the men started pouring in from Thai-owned
trawlers and from wherever they were kept on Indonesian territory to board a
boat sent out to pick them up. Asep Burhanuddin, director general of
Indonesia's Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillancedeclared:
"We don't want to leave a
single person behind." Many slaves, indeed, have been
allowed to escape from their cages to a rather vague future, though.
debating the AP investigation for several weeks, Thai lawmakers have approved
tougher penalties for violating the country's laws against human trafficking. But, according to Phil Robertson of the Human Rights Watch's Asia
division "nothing has
changed in the brutal working conditions and physical abuse meted out by
captains against their crews, and
in reality the Thai government's rhetoric to stop human trafficking and clean
up the fishing fleets still largely stops at the water's edge". Nonetheless, however, things
seem to be changing.
U.S. State Department had blacklisted Thailand for failing to meet standards in
fighting human trafficking and also because fish caught by slaves were entering
the supply chains of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the
United States, and some major American business leaders
called on the Thai government to crack down on slavery in its fishing fleets. Also,
Thailand's biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, announced that
it had cut ties with suppliers involved with forced labour and other abuses.
According tothe International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), there are 40,000
Thai vessels with only 10,000 registered crews (many with fake licenses) and
the rest - "invisible" migrant workers - are treated like slaves.
Mark Davis of the ITF spoke about
the neglect and abuse: “How have we
got to a position where a fish has more value than the worker who catches it?”
he said. ITF's Keith McCorriston said that
such crews had been onboard for months but scared to complain.
The Indonesian Traditional
Fishermen's Association (KNTI) called on the Ministry of Marine Affairs and
Fisheries (KKP), the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas Ham), the
Immigration, the military, the police and societal organisations to investigate
slavery practices. The government, said the KNTI chairman, could call on the
world markets to close access for companies involved in the slavery and
revocation of their certifications on fishery products."No
one seemed to be aware of the problem, and now that they are, they want to do
something as quickly as possible," said Steve Hamilton, of the International
Organization for Migration, in Indonesia.
Unfortunately, with enforcement and implementation of laws and
regulations claimed to be absolutely inadequate, the Thai government is
launching ‘major public
relations campaign’. The situation is that the problems of slavery and child
labour are dealt with barely more than just legislation and only little
enforcement and coordination. When a U.N. international treaty against forced labour
had been put to vote, Thailand was the only country in the world to vote
its Labour Ministry made a rather lame attempt at sending consenting prisoners,
who had less than a year left of their sentence, to work onboard Thai fishing vessels, a proposition that was met
with international outcry, and subsequently scrapped.
The slavery of various degrees onboard Thai fishing vessels has been
spawned by critical shortage of national manpower in Thailand's fishing
industry, the world's third largest seafood exporter and a mass employer. In
Thailand, which is better off economically than most of its neighbours, people
avoid employment that requires hard work and lengthy periods at sea, with
working conditions and pay far from attractive. Thus, each year, thousands of migrants, desperate
for work and lured by the promise of better jobs, pay brokers to smuggle them
into Thailand. But instead of leading them towards beneficial employment,
brokers sell them into slavery aboard the country’s fishing ships. Most of
them are from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. They pay traffickers to
transport them through the border and end up in Thailand sold to fishing vessel skippers/owners and held onboard
or on some man and godforsaken islands for months against their will, and
miserly paid if at all. Some of such
workers come also from poorer parts of Thailand.
must be asked, like this comment on the report: "If most of the boat captains are from Thailand, where are the
arrests and prosecution? Could it be that some very wealthy people have their
hands in this sleazy pie?"
Could the release
of some slaves on the Indonesian islands represent 'mission accomplished'? It
seems to me that as long as the basic conditions that spawned this situation,
including the bestial behaviour that comes with it, still exist – so will the
* R. McDowell, M. Mason & M. Mendoza - http://bigstory.ap.org/article/b9e0fc7155014ba78e07f1a022d90389/ap-investigation-are-slaves-catching-fish-you-buy