The subject of human trafficking in Southeast Asia has recently been highlighted by the tragic fate of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar trying to gain access to Thailand and other neighbouring countries to escape violence and discrimination in their homeland. What awaits some of the unfortunate migrants, however, if they are forced into working in Thailand's commercial fishing fleet is forced labour, sometimes for years, enduring untold levels of deprivation and brutality at the hands of their gang masters. Small, so-called 'forage fish' which are typically made into fishmeal or pet food, are one of Thailand's fastest growing export products, mainly bound for the United States where they are fed to pets, poultry, pigs or to farm-raised fish. In 2014, some $ 190 million worth of fish were exported from Thailand to the US - and the industry continues to grow. This would all be good news for Thailand, offering employment for hundreds of thousands of deck hands on the countless trawlers that ply the South China Sea.
Yet Thailand's low unemployment rate, if official figures of 0.6% are to be believed, means that there is enough employment on land for most indigenous Thais and a gaping shortage of some 50,000 fishing fleet workers each year. This lucrative gap has been ruthlessly exploited by people traffickers who bring people across the border into Thailand on a 'travel now, pay later' basis, saddling prospective migrants with enormous debts that then need to be repaid through years of work. One of the preferred destinations for trafficked migrants are Thailand's long-haul shipping fleets.
With fish stocks dwindling everywhere, Thai trawlers skimming surface waters for forage fish are having to go ever further offshore to get decent catches. It is these long-haul trawlers that are now at the centre of the region's shocking forced labour crisis which is sucking in thousands of indentured labourers from countries like Cambodia and Myanmar. With some trawlers going to sea for up to
a year at a time, deep into international waters and territorial waters of neighbouring countries, way beyond the control and remit of local maritime authorities, some migrant labourers are disappearing off the radar with no way of escaping their fate.
Once handed over by their traffickers to trawler operators, the migrants often find themselves completely at the mercy of cruel and unscrupulous ship captains who have few calms about murdering some of their workers if they prove persistently insubordinate. Of 50 men and boys sold to Thai fishing boats interviewed in a United Nations survey in 2009, 29 said they had witnessed workers being killed aboard their fishing boats. While aboard the ships, sometimes up to 1,000 miles out at sea, workers are expected to work up to 20 hours a day, sleeping in filthy quarters below deck and often facing brutal punishment for minor infringements.
Despite pressure from United Nations organisations working to combat forced labour and charities involved in human rights issues, members of the Thai police and military have been accused of turning
a blind eye to the problem, sometimes taking bribes from traffickers to allow them across the border. Some trafficked migrants report having been 'freed' by police officers, only to be sold onto the next trafficker. Once at sea, forced labourers are often sold on, with their price going up as their experience increases. Thailand is now ranked at the very bottom of the US State Department's list of countries not meeting minimum standards in the fight against human trafficking.
Authorities in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia claim that their navies and coast guards are too short of ships, fuel and manpower to police their vast maritime dominions. Thailand in particular has relatively lax regulation with regard to commercial fishing, allowing trawlers to remain at sea for much longer. In a ill-advised effort to stem the flow of forced labour onto the country's shipping fleet Thai officials suggested using prisoners instead, a proposal that was strongly condemned by rights groups.
Adam Dean explored the murky and brutal world of Thailand's lucrative fishing fleet. Full text by Ian Urbina on request.