Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, and it is America’s second-largest seafood supplier. In the U.S., there is a good chance that one’s shrimp, tuna, sardines, or squid came from Thailand. There is also a good chance that the Thai fishing boat that caught those items was involved in sea slavery.
The country of Thailand is flanked by Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, which rank among Asia’s poorest countries. In Myanmar, 75 percent of the people do not have electricity, and most make less than one dollar a day. By contrast, prosperity and employment rates have been continuously rising in Thailand for the last thirty years. This good fortune has enabled Thailand’s citizens to opt out of the more labor-intensive jobs such as seafood processing and fishing. The ensuing void gets filled by migrant workers trying to escape desperate poverty.
In addition, the job of working on a fishing boat in Thailand has become more demanding. Overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing are major issues, and operators are spending ever-increasing periods of time at sea in order to bring in ever-diminishing catches. Studies have shown that from 1961 to 2006, the catch per unit of effort (CPUE) has been reduced by 97 percent. Rising fuel prices have also increased operating costs. In order to maintain profits, vessel operators cut labor costs and downgrade working conditions.
Thus the relative prosperity of Thailand and the diminished wages and working conditions of fishers have created a strong demand for migrant labor and human trafficking networks. Brokers promise men stuck in overwhelming poverty a job in Thailand at a factory or construction site. These brokers then hand the men over to smugglers who march them through forests into Thailand. Finally, the migrants are herded into locked and guarded holding tanks. This is the point when the men come to realize that their broker has duped them. From that point on, they are held captive. They are sold to Thai fishing syndicates, and their debts are transferred to the fishing boat captains. They have now become locked into the sea slavery system endemic to Thai fishing boats. The captain, after purchasing the migrant, is then free to turn around and charge the captive any price he wants for the captive’s freedom. This often equates to the captive never being able to pay his debt off.
Angry about being deceived by their job brokers and knowing the conditions they will face, the migrants do not willingly board the boats. They are forced upon threat of death. Others who have not paid a job broker and smuggler are simply kidnapped once they are in Thailand by traffickers, either at gunpoint or by drugging their drinks in karaoke dives. In one case investigated by the Thai NGO Mirror Foundation, chloroform rags were used on two teenage brothers at the urinals in a Bangkok bus station.
Those who manage to escape have told of 18-20 hour days sorting catch and manning nets. There is little to no cover from the blistering sun, and the slaves sleep on the ship’s wooden decks as the motor roars on. Starvation is used as a tool for control, and the men become weak fairly quickly as a result of dehydration and malnutrition. Severe beatings are the norm. A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) reported that 59 percent of trafficked migrants on Thai fishing boats had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker. Those who manage to escape are often caught by police and then sold back into the industry to the highest bidder.
Thailand has a high corruption rate, and authorities often work in collusion with traffickers and fishing syndicates. If an escapee is lucky, he will get sent to a detention center to await processing in a human-trafficking case, but those in the detention centers complain their cases languish without progress. The majority of these victims eventually give up on trying to receive any type of justice and simply return to their home country.
Operating Thai fishing vessels outside Thai waters is widespread, and these boats commonly stay years at sea. Until they need repairs, some even stay out indefinitely by having larger vessels transport their catch and bring supplies, fuel, and water to them. The boats are often disguised to avoid detection by authorities and are nicknamed ghost ships, because they are undocumented and unaccounted for. To minimize the risk of escape when ships need to go to port, sea slaves are either transferred within a fleet or sold to another boat.
Forced labor in Thailand’s seafood industry is well-documented by governments, NGOs, and international organizations. Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a British-based human rights charity, has been the most recent group investigating the “shocking and systemic abuse of migrant workers in the Thai seafood sector.” In 2013, EJF released two reports and accompanying short documentaries on the issue. One is titled Sold to the Sea and is shown below.
The U.S. is involved in the efforts to end sea slavery on Thai fishing boats as well. The primary diplomatic tool used by the U.S. to engage in the fight against human trafficking is the Department of State’s Watchlist for Trafficking in Persons report (TIP). Countries are ranked at three levels, or tiers. Thailand has been at Tier 2 for four straight years and, according to the rules, must move either up or down a tier this year. If it does not address the documented issue of sea slaves in an adequate manner, Thailand will be placed into Tier 3. As a consequence, the U.S. may withhold or withdraw non-trade related, non-humanitarian foreign assistance. If the TIP report’s usual June release date continues to hold for 2014, and the report finds that Thailand has not adequately addressed its problem with sea slavery on Thai fishing boats, U.S. sanctions may begin in as little as three months. It is hoped that this step will finally provide some much needed relief.
By Donna Westlund