Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Slave Trade in Seafood

"You Burmese are never going home. You were sold, and no one is ever coming to rescue you."
Thai fishing boat captain

"I don’t want to speak that language anymore because I suffered so much there. I hate that language now."
"I feel like a tourist [on his return to his home in Burma]. I feel Indonesian."
"I didn’t want an Indonesian wife, I just wanted to go back home to Myanmar. I felt like I lost my young man’s life. I just thought that all of this time, I should have been in Burma having a wife and a proper family."
"My life was just so bad that it hurts me a lot to think about it. I miss my mom."
Myint Naing, 40, former fisherman slave
Myint Naing
In this May 16, 2015, photo, former slave fisherman Myint Naing, 40, center, and his sister Mawli Than, left, embrace as they are reunited after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. He is the oldest of four boys and two girls. In 1990, his father drowned while fishing, leaving him as the man in charge at just 15.   AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Thailand has a busy and vast seafood export industry. And it is an industry built on slavery. Where innocent Burmese anxious to find employment are assured by recruiters that in Thailand they will find full employment, earn good salaries and be able to send money back home to their impoverished families living in their Burmese villages. The reality is that they are transported to Thailand and from there handed over for payment to fish in an industry that works its slaves around the clock, sometimes giving them a pittance in recompense, sometimes nothing.

Myint Naing, at the age of 18 became one of those slaves when a broker came to southern Myanmar in 1993 promising excellent, well-paid jobs for young men willing to work. Mying's father had died three years earlier and he, as the oldest male child in the family took on the mantle head of family and wage-earner. Desperate for a living wage for the family, Myint's mother agreed he could go with the agent. He was shipped by sea to the remote Indonesian island of Tual in the midst of rich fishing grounds.

And that was when the captain of the Thai vessel informed all the young men on board that they were no longer independent, but rather that he owned them; that they had been sold to him and there was no way they could return home. The ocean became his life as he became a slave to fishing to profit the captain and the larger, wider Thai fishing enterprise in their growing export market. It is a seafood business operating on the labour of an estimated 200,000 migrant workers.
Dita Alangkara/ Associated Press
Dita Alangkara/ Associated Press   Workers in Benjina, Indonesia, load fish onto a cargo ship bound for Thailand. Seafood caught by slaves mixes in with other fish at a number of sites in Thailand, including processing plants.

Many of them are not simply 'migrant workers', but slaves who were forced onto the boats; tricked, kidnapped or sold as Myint Naing had been. Their plight similar to that of press gangs roaming the streets of 18th Century Britain for sailors when such abductions were a common occurrence. The fishing companies that make up the Thai market have a wide consumer base, from the United States to Europe and Japan. The fish these workers and slaves help catch supplies food for faroff countries unware that slave labour places fish on their dining tables or in the tins of catfood they rely upon.

The young man repeatedly begged to be allowed to return home, and for his efforts was beaten mercilessly, forced to continue working on a boat in Indonesia. Eight years after he had first been taken to the boat as a slave he begged for his freedom only to hear the captain threaten to kill him. He was chained for three days as punishment, food and water denied him. He and 800 other slaves were rescued following a yearlong Associated Press investigation into Southeast Asia's fishing industry.

AP Photo/APTN In this Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014 image from video, workers from Myanmar load fish onto a Thai-flagged cargo ship in Benjina, Indonesia. An intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Our seafood may come from slave workers.

With the expansion of the seafood export industry, overfishing has meant that trawlers were required to sail further and further into foreign waters for fish. The result is that the workers are virtually trapped for months, extending to years aboard their seabound prisons. There is no medical care, boiled sea water is given them, and the rescued fishermen explained that on some boats workers were killed if they slowed the frenzied pace of drawing fish from the ocean. Some, in desperation, fling themselves into the sea.

In 1996, he ran away after having been beaten yet again in response to his pleading to be released. He managed to abandon his captivity, his skull wounded from the beating. An Indonesian family sheltered him until he regained some semblance of health, offering him food and shelter in return for his work on their farm. He stayed with them for five years, yearning to return to Myanmar, and missing the friends he had made and left behind on the boat he had run away from.

Then in 2001, a captain offering to take fishermen back home if they agreed to work caught his attention. In the hope that this would solve his dilemma he returned to the sea, discovering the conditions similar to what he had fled from. The elusive payment for their labour was withheld. After another nine months the captain abandoned them, leaving them free to return to Thailand on their own. When, once again, he asked to be returned to Burma, he was chained to the boat.

He managed to pick the lock on his shackles, dove into the night-time water and swam to shore. He hid in the jungle, fearful of approaching police lest they deliver him back to the fishing captains. By 2011 his life of solitude and privation caused him to move to the island of Dobo and there he heard of a small group of former Burmese slaves, living on vegetables they raised themselves. A friend informed him eventually that the Indonesian government had begun a rescue operation, embarrassed by revelations of slavery.

Myint Naing
In this May 16, 2015 photo, former slave fisherman Myint Naing and his mother, Khin Than, cry as they are reunited after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of former slave fishermen who returned to Myanmar following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labor in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry.  AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe
Myint Naing's 22 years in Indonesia had come to an end. He finally received the help he had longed for to return to his small village and be reunited with his family, one of the hundreds rescued and aided to return to their families in the wake of a year-long AP expose of the labour abuses abetting Southeast Asia's seafood industry. Reports documenting the slave-caught fish shipped from Indonesia to Thailand where it was exported to the U.S. spoke volumes of the plight of these poor people.

It was revealed that the supply chains of supermarkets and distributors included Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, and companies such as Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams emphasize their condemnation of such labour abuse, and having had no idea that their pet food was a product of slave fishing conditions; vowing they are committed to taking steps to prevent recurrences for the future.

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