Overfishing Driving Slavery on Thailand’s Seafood Boats
By Robin McDowell & Margie Mason 26 February 2015
SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand — Urine pools under a bed where an emaciated Burmese man lies wearing only a T-shirt and a diaper.
As he struggles to sit up and steady himself, he tears at his thick, dark hair in agitation. He cannot walk and doesn’t remember his family or even his own name. He speaks mostly gibberish in broken Indonesian — a language he learned while working in the country as a slave aboard a Thai fishing boat.
Near death from a lack of proper food, he was rescued from a tiny island in Indonesia two months ago. He is just one of countless hidden casualties from the fishing industry in Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter.
A report released Wednesday by the British nonprofit Environmental Justice Foundation said that overfishing and the use of illegal and undocumented trawlers have ravaged Thailand’s marine ecosystems and depleted fish stocks. Boats are now catching about 85 percent less than what they brought in 50 years ago, making it “one of the most overfished regions on the planet,” the report said.
Shrinking fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea have, in turn, pushed Thai fishing boats farther and farther from home. The group estimates that up to half of all fish labeled a “product of Thailand” is sourced from outside its borders—mainly in Asia, but as far away as Africa.
The report, compiled from the group’s own research and the work of others, explains how Thailand’s vast seafood industry is almost wholly dependent on cheap migrant labor. Since few Thais are willing to take the dangerous, low-level jobs that can take them far from home, a sophisticated network of brokers and agents has emerged, regularly recruiting laborers from impoverished neighboring countries such as Burma and Cambodia, often through trickery and kidnapping.
Men—and sometimes children as young as 13—are sold onto boats where they typically work 18- to 20-hour days with little food and often only boiled sea water to drink, enduring beatings and sometimes even death at the hands in their captains. Most are paid little or nothing. They can be trapped at sea for months or years at a time; transshipment vessels are routinely used to pick up catches and deliver supplies.
Concerns about labor abuses, especially at sea, prompted the U.S. State Department last year to downgrade Thailand to the lowest level in its annual human trafficking report, putting the country on par with North Korea, Iran and Syria. It highlighted abuse on both ships and in processing plants, noting widespread involvement from corrupt officials.
The Southeast Asian nation responded by launching a major public relations campaign, with the government drafting its own country assessment to highlight steps taken to clean up the industry since a military junta took control of Thailand in May. The unreleased Thai report, obtained by The Associated Press, includes establishing a new national registry of illegal migrant workers and plans for stricter labor regulations on vessels and in the seafood industry.
However, just a month after the new government stepped in, Thailand was the only country in the world to vote against a U.N. international treaty aimed at stopping forced labor.
“If you drill down, if you look at the substance of enforcement and the implementation of existing laws and regulations, it’s minimal,” said Steve Trent, the group’s executive director. “What the Thai government seems to do repeatedly, again and again in the face of these accusations, is conduct a high-powered PR exercise rather than seek to address the problem.”
A Thai government spokesman and officials at the Department of Fisheries did not immediately respond to The Associated Press’ requests for comment.
Thailand, which exported US$7 billion in seafood in 2013, is one of the biggest suppliers to the U.S. But a study published last year in the journal Marine Policy estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of tuna shipped from Thailand to America is from illegal or unreported sources — the highest rate of any species or country examined — and is frequently linked to labor abuses at sea.
Human rights advocates say some improvements have been noted in domestic waters, but such policies have little impact when vessels stray into the territorial waters of other countries. Traveling longer distances to catch fish raises operating costs, and increases pressure on fishing companies to save money by relying on forced, bonded and slave labor.
“On long-haul boats, nothing has changed in the brutal working conditions and physical abuse meted out by captains against their crews,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who has worked extensively on the issue. “The reality is the Thai government’s high-sounding rhetoric to stop human trafficking and clean up the fishing fleets still largely stops at the water’s edge.”
The man rescued from the Indonesian island in December now remembers his name—Min Min—and bits of his old life in Burma. But his mind remains far from clear.
He knows he worked three years on a boat in Indonesia where his ankles were sometimes bound with rope. He recalls collapsing one day on deck during a storm and being unconscious for three hours before the Thai captain forced him to get up and haul the nets back in.
Eventually, he became too sick and weak to work and was abandoned on the remote island two years ago.
Min Min was on the verge of starvation when he was rescued and taken to the nonprofit Labor Rights Protection Network in Samut Sakhon, a gritty port town on the outskirts of Bangkok. He’s eating well and taking vitamins to try to regain his strength, and he can now stand and slowly shuffle across the floor.
He is still far from well. He’s confused about such basics as his age, saying once that he is 43 and later that he is 36. If his family back in Burma is mentioned, he becomes rattled and stutters his thoughts as if it’s too much to bear.
“Working on the boat is no good. People like to take advantage of you,” he said. “If I recover from my illness, I’ll never be on a boat again in my life. Never again. I’m scared.”