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Death at sea: Thai slave masters show no mercy

Thailand's lucrative fishing sector resorts to highly unethical practices, notably forced migrant labor

Published: July 07, 2021 03:54 AM GMT

Updated: July 07, 2021 04:00 AM GMT

Death at sea: Thai slave masters show no mercy

Ae, a Thai man who spent most of his life homeless, was tricked into joining the crew of a fishing vessel where he found himself essentially enslaved. (Photo: UCA News)

Ae, a reticent middle-aged Thai man, spent almost all his life living homeless on the streets of Bangkok after he ran away from home as a child.

“My parents neglected me. They didn’t want me,” recalls Ae, who goes only by his nickname as he does not know his legal name.

Through the years he would survive panhandling and scavenging for food in garbage bins. On the side, although he can’t read or write, he sold newspapers to passersby.

Then one day, a few years ago, fortune finally smiled at him — or so it seemed. A man approached Ae offering him a job on a fishing boat. “He said I could make a lot of money,” he remembers.

The homeless man, who had had to make do with loose change all his life, jumped at the chance. That’s where his real travails began.

Instead of a handsome salary, he was paid nothing and was forced to slave away aboard the ship all day long for months on end out at sea. The work was grueling but he could not resist or say no. If he did, “they could push me overboard and no one would know,” Ae explains.

They abused the crew in many ways — beating, hitting and killing out on the ocean

The Thai man finally managed to make his escape — barely. Once when his boat returned to shore, he got off and hid under a rickety house on stilts.

Ae is hardly the only person to have fallen victim to unscrupulous operators in Thailand’s lucrative fishing industry, a US$7-billion business that has long been plagued by accusations that it resorts to highly unethical practices such as forced labor.

The industry employs an estimated 800,000 people, the vast majority of whom are migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

Over the years, there have been numerous reports of large-scale human trafficking as part of recruitment for work on fishing vessels. And once trafficked workers are aboard vessels out at sea, they are at the mercy of those in charge.

Many of the victims have reported seeing co-workers murdered aboard boats for refusing to toe the line.

“I witnessed murder with my own eyes,” Tun Thet Soe, a victim of trafficking from Myanmar who, like Ae, managed to escape, told the Environmental Justice Foundation, a United Kingdom-based NGO.

“They abused the crew in many ways — beating, hitting and killing out on the ocean,” the Burmese man explained. “They would torture and murder the fishers, then throw them into the sea.”

A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that two-thirds of trafficked migrant workers who were interviewed after having worked aboard Thai fishing vessels had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker.

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However, it is not just the constant threat of being whipped or murdered that weighs heavily on those who are tricked or forced into joining Thai fishing vessels. So does the endless routine of backbreaking labor.

“Working conditions on Thai fishing vessels are notoriously challenging. In multiple reports, workers discuss working 18-20-hour days with inadequate food, water and medical supplies. Between 14 percent and 18 percent of migrants report being victims of forced labor,” explains the Borgen Project, a US-based group that documents labor rights abuses worldwide.

“Threats from employers and beatings are common, along with working at sea for years at a time without being allowed to leave the vessel. These conditions affect all nationalities in the Thai fishing industry, but undocumented immigrants are the most vulnerable to mistreatment.”

The EU said it would impose a trade ban on marine fisheries products from the Southeast Asian nation unless its fishing industry stopped serious human rights abuses

Many impoverished migrant workers are lured into working on fishing vessels under false pretenses. Others wind up in so-called debt bondage, which affects hundreds of thousands of low-income workers in Thailand alone, according to Walk Free, an Australian organization that seeks to end modern slavery worldwide.

A modern-day form of indentured servitude, debt bondage is a scheme whereby laborers are duped into paying as much as $330 (a fortune to most low-income earners) to get a job on borrowed money, only to wind up being indebted to brokers or employers. They are then forced to work for free for prolonged periods as they continue repaying their “debts.”

Faced by international outrage about severe labor rights abuses and environmentally exploitative practices, the Thai fishing industry has made some efforts to clean up its act.

In 2015, the European Union gave Thailand a “yellow card” by way of a warning. The EU said it would impose a trade ban on marine fisheries products from the Southeast Asian nation unless its fishing industry stopped serious human rights abuses such as forced labor and desisted from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices.

In 2019, the EU lifted its yellow card on Thailand in recognition of the progress the country had made in these respects.

However, that does not mean all is well with the Thai fishing industry. Despite there being more stringent regulations in place, enforcement remains lax and corruption rampant.

A fisherman takes a small, newly caught fish out of a net. (Photo: UCA News)

Migrant ghost workers

Unscrupulous operators, say labor rights advocates, can continue to exploit their workers with impunity. This applies particularly to migrant workers from countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia, especially since many of them work in Thailand illegally, which means that they are less likely to seek, and receive, help from local law enforcement authorities.

“Many of these undocumented migrant workers are like ghosts in Thailand,” says a Thai rights activist who asked not to be named. “They came into the country illegally, so they might be treated like criminals if they spoke out” about labor rights abuses.

In its recent 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, in which Thailand was downgraded from a Tier 2 country to a Tier 2 Watchlist nation, the US Department of State notes that despite having made some progress in eliminating human trafficking, Thai authorities last year “initiated significantly fewer trafficking investigations, prosecuted fewer suspects and convicted fewer traffickers than in 2019.”

The report’s authors highlight persistent allegations that migrant workers have been tricked or coerced into forced labor in many industries in Thailand, yet the country’s military-allied government continues to downplay the extent of the problem.

It is not hard to witness migrant workers toiling away in grueling conditions. On a recent afternoon under a cloudless sky with a scorching sun overhead, several Cambodian workers were cleaning nets at a small fishing port in Hua Hin, a resort town south of Bangkok.

As Thai tourists piled into open-air seafood restaurants to dine on fish, shrimp and mussels a few meters away, the Cambodians kept on working. When an inquisitive journalist decided to take a few pictures, they lowered their heads and did their best to avoid being photographed.

Later on in the afternoon, as the sun began its descent beyond the horizon, the Cambodians were still cleaning nets and hanging them out to dry, their calloused hands performing the monotonous tasks with skill.

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