Slavery in fisheries: No longer ignored

Menakhem Ben-Yami looks at the latest report into slavery in the Thai fishing industry and what is being done to bring an end to it.

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 for action.

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.  

Tougher penalties
After 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. 

The 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.

PR campaign
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 against. Instead, 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. 

Some questions 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 slavery.

* R. McDowell, M. Mason & M. Mendoza -


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