A Story of Modern Slavery in Thailand

By Saw Yan Naing 21 August 2015

Hoping for a brighter future, Maung Htay left Burma when he was just a teenager. He is now 42, but his dream is still far from realized. He is still impoverished and has lost all contact with his parents after more than 20 years of working in Thailand.

Maung Htay’s long journey has had its ups and downs. He has worked on construction sites and at a timber factory, and was imprisoned as a slave on the high seas.

About six years ago, while working at a construction site in a Thai border town, Maung Htay was arrested by Thai police during a raid cracking down on illegal migrant workers. He was taken from the site and detained.

A Burmese broker, Naing Oo, paid a fine of 3,000 baht (US$85) to the police in exchange for Maung Htay’s release, promising him a good job. Maung Htay was delighted by the offer, but the job never materialized. He quickly realized that his release from jail actually meant he had been sold to a human trafficking gang and was being sent to work as a slave on a fishing boat in Indonesian waters.

Maung Htay is one of thousands of modern-day Burmese who have been held captive and made to work as slaves by traders in the ocean off Thailand and Indonesia.

“I worked days and nights, in the rain, in the heat and in the storm,” Maung Htay said in a telephone interview. “We were not fed sufficiently. We had to work even [when] we were injured and sick. They gave no medicine and treatments. Sick people who couldn’t work got shot.”

He said he witnessed at least 15 fishermen being tortured and shot by captains and crewmembers because they were sick and asking for medicine. The men’s bodies were thrown into the sea.

“I was very sad seeing my colleagues killed. But I could do nothing except feel sad. They have pistols and we have nothing. We can’t go against them,” Maung Htay said of his captors.

Through the five years he was held prisoner at sea, Maung Htay had no money. Whatever salary he earned was paid to the brokers who had sold him to work on the fishing boats. When he realized that he would likely never be released, and could die in the sea, Maung Htay resolved to risk everything to escape.

“I decided to swim for my life, no matter what happened, because nothing could be worse than being a slave. I knew only two things. I would die or be liberated. If I didn’t die, I would get freedom. So, it was at night. I and a friend jumped into water and swam for our lives. All I had was the clothes I was wearing and a phone.”

He’d held onto the phone he’d bought when he worked at a timber factory, wrapping it in plastic before jumping into the water. “When we reached the

shore, I used my phone to call for help,” Maung Htay said.

When he reached the shore on an island in Indonesia that borders Thai waters, Maung Htay said he called phone numbers he saw written on signs and billboards offering help. He was rescued by a team from Anti-Slavery International, a human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world. He was taken to Phuket island in Thailand, where Anti-Slavery International released him to the Foundation for Education and Development (FED), a Burmese labor rights organization based in Southern Thailand.

Min Oo, a labor rights activist who works for FED, told the Journal, “Anti-Slavery contacted our office and asked us to take care of him. We went to rescue him with our lawyer and colleagues. He is now with us and safe.”

Human Trafficking and Slave-Trade Networks

Burmese labor rights activist Kyaw Thaung, director of the Bangkok-based labor rights group Myanmar Association in Thailand, told the Journal that about 90 percent of trafficked fishermen in Thailand are from Burma, followed by Cambodia and Laos. About 3 million migrants from Burma are living and working in Thailand, according to labor rights groups.

Kyaw Thaung said a key problem is that Burmese people, including many university graduates, can’t find jobs in Burma. Thus, they take risks to come into Thailand, believing there are better job opportunities there.

“No matter what, they risk their life to earn so they can support their family back in Burma. They can send 100,000 to 200,000 kyat ($100 to $200) a month to their family. So, they come to seek work in Thailand. Some of them trust the words of brokers and traffickers, so they leave Myanmar for better jobs,” Kyaw Thaung said.

Labor rights groups confirm Maung Htay’s account. They say the fishing industry in Thailand is the worst sector for trafficking of migrants from Burma (also known as Burma), Cambodia and Laos, where migrants are often made to work in the waters off Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia with no hope of release. The trafficked migrants range in age from 8 to 60, and are sold to the boats’ captains by human traffickers, gangs and smugglers.

They are forced to work 20 hours a day, sometimes nonstop, in dirty and dangerous conditions with little or no pay. Some have been at sea for five years without seeing land, and many are beaten or killed by their captors if they are sick or absent from work for any length of time. When the captive fishermen become sick, they are denied medicine.

Sein Htay, director of the Migrant Worker Rights Network, a labor rights group in Thailand, told the Journal that human traffickers in Burma and Thailand have large networks for their slave trading, which brings them fast and significant profits. Brokers inside Burma recruit job seekers and promise them good and safe jobs in Thailand.

Job-hunting Burmese migrants believe the brokers and travel to Thailand, then find themselves on fishing boats having been sold off by the traffickers. How much they are sold for depends on individual cases, but prices run from 10,000 to 30,000 baht ($350 to $1,300) per person, according to Sein Htay.

Sein Htay said he believes all of the human traffickers and brokers are connected to the same network. It starts with local brokers in small villages in Burma and extends to smugglers and traffickers in Thailand, including both Burmese and Thais.

“[Captains] pay brokers immediately for captives because they need fishermen. There are big demands. And [brokers and traffickers] make money fast from this trade. They get paid immediately once they sell people into boats,” Sein Htay said.

He said captains and boat owners don’t allow the migrants any legal documents for fear they will attempt to escape. Migrants in Thailand without registered documents are at great risk of being arrested, tortured, jailed, deported or subjected to extortion.

When the fishing boats dock, the captives are kept in camps on the shore, watched over by armed security guards. There are few chances for the captives to escape while ashore, and even when they do, they usually end up arrested by local police in collusion with the traffickers, who return them to the fishing boats’ owners.

Sein Htay said the owners of many of the fishing boats are leading figures in the communities, including politicians, local businessmen and administrators, and all have connections with police. Local police, he said, receive bribes to return the slaves to the boat owners and captains.

Sein Htay’s claims are backed up by David Hammond, CEO and founder of Human Rights at Sea, a British nonprofit that helps raise awareness and accountability for human rights violations throughout the maritime environment.

Hammond told the Journal that individuals who work in human trafficking and the smuggling trade are from established criminal networks that are embedded in local economies and often supported by local constabulary; this has been the subject of media reports, which named senior military, political and state officials who are now being implicated and criminally charged for their involvement in the “human supply chain.”

“Such a network is not an opportunistic one; instead, it is a well-established structure and arguably has become embedded in the fabric of some echelons of society where human beings are the traded commodity,” Hammond said.

He added that the apparent normalization of the slave trade is testimony to its tacit acceptance in some constabulary, military and executive circles, underpinned by the hard fact that profit comes before people.

“Without NGOs such as ours, abuses will undoubtedly continue to go unreported and in the vacuum of awareness and inability by society to effectively respond. Evil multiplies, criminals profit, and ordinary people continue to be abused,” Hammond said.

Global Market and Slavery Chain

Modern slavery in fishing boats in Southeast Asian waters proves that the slavery of ancient times continues because of the global market’s demand for seafood and products for pet foods.

Investigative reports by international newspapers, including The Guardian, The New York Times and Associated Press, have found that many of the ingredients in pet food and seafood that are sold in the United States and Europe are being produced by cheap labor and slave labor from Thai fishing sectors.

The New York Times reported July 27 that much of pet food, such as canned cat and dog food, or food for poultry, livestock and farm-raised fish shipped and sold to United States comes from the waters off Thailand.

In May of this year, human trafficking in Southeast Asia gained international attention when more than 3,000 Rohingyan migrants from Burma and Bangladesh were left adrift by traffickers and smugglers in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, and several hundred bodies believed to be corpses of victims of human trafficking were found in Malaysia and Thailand in camps run by gangs and traffickers.

Thai and Malaysian officials’ responses to the mass grave discoveries disrupted trafficking patterns and led to additional abuses against Rohingyan and Bangladeshi migrants, as the traffickers pushed boats out to sea and denied survivors any resources.

Since 2012, more than 150,000 Rohingya have fled western Burma to escape persecution, and human traffickers in Burma and Bangladesh have bought and sold tens of thousands of them, duping them onto modern-day slave ships with promises of lucrative employment in Malaysia.

Fortify Rights, a human rights group in Thailand, documented how traffickers hold slaves for long hours in camps run by gangs and often demanded upward of $2,000 from the captives’ friends and family in exchange for a promise of their release—if they are approached. Women and girls who could not raise the necessary funds were sold into forced marriages. Men were sold to fishing boats and other industries in Malaysia and Thailand.

“People are regarded as property by fishing boat captains. We use the term ‘slavery’ deliberately because, technically speaking, people are treated as slaves. They can’t get free by captains. They work for long hours without pay,” Matthew F. Smith, the director of Fortify Rights, told the Journal.

In July, Fortify Rights criticized the US State Department’s annual trafficking in-person report for failing to accurately assess efforts by Malaysia and Burma to combat human trafficking.

It said that US Secretary of State John Kerry upgraded Malaysia from Tier-3 to Tier-2 watch-list status, while keeping Burma at Tier-2 watch-list status, despite evidence that each country failed to adequately combat human trafficking last year.

Demands and Concerns 

“Western consumers, particularly in the United States, should be aware of these problems in the supply chain of major distributors throughout the country. They should be aware that the seafood that they are eating may have been produced with slave labor,” Smith said.

Smith said that prawn consumers in particular should pay very close attention to the origins of what they are consuming.

“I think American consumers have a certain degree of power that can help change this system. Pressure should be put on companies and governments. Until that happens, we will see more practices of slavery. Western consumers, particularly American consumers, can play a very active role in helping to end this modern slavery,” Smith said.

Hammond of Human Rights at Sea said, however, that continued global demand drives supply, and ending human trafficking trade won’t come easily.

“As much as it saddens me to say it, modern slavery is not going to suddenly end in a flurry of new political policy and judicial initiatives. The networks that use human beings within their business model are flexible, resilient and evolve as any valuable commercial venture will; just look to the drugs and forced prostitution trades for a close analogy,” Hammond said.

Kyaw Thaung of the Myanmar Association in Thailand said he has rescued about 200 trafficked migrants annually, and estimated he has rescued more than 1,000 trafficked migrants so far. He said the youngest fishermen he has rescued were 8 years old. Some fishermen use drugs in order to work longer hours, and some use it to ease and release their stress.

Kyaw Thaung said it is only now becoming known to the outside world that slave labor exists in the seafood market and other products imported from Thailand. However, it is not enough to expect Thailand alone to end this enslavement, he said.

“There must be a campaign to stop buying almost all products from Thailand so that Thai government will be aware of the issue.

“In order to end slavery in Thailand, I think we should ask all consumers from America, Europe and the rest of the world to stop consuming seafood and products from Thailand,” Kyaw Thaung said.

Saw Yan Naing, 30, is an ethnic Karen journalist from Burma who this week concludes five months on staff at the Jewish Journal as part of a prestigious fellowship with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners. This story originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on Aug. 20.