Modern Day Slave Labor in the Fishing Industry
For years, it has been an open secret in the Asian fishing industry that slave labor was in shockingly wide use. From catching to cleaning, peeling and loading, if your seafood came from Asia, it was most likely done by a slave laborer who was trafficked into a miserable and inhumane existence.
Seafood is the most traded commodity in the world. In the fishing industry, competition is fierce and the amount of fish, shrimp, and other seafood is dwindling from overfishing. In order to keep profits up, fishing boats and companies exploit their “workers” by paying them next to nothing, feeding them barely enough to survive, and holding them captive on the boats or on “slave islands,”- sometimes even in cages – to prevent escape.
A Burmese national named Myint was held captive on an Indonesian fishing boat for 3 years. He came from a poor village in Myanamar. A broker working for a fishing company came to his village promising big money for working on one of his boats in Thailand. Myint, 18 at the time, went with the broker in hopes of helping his impoverished family. He was given fake Thai work documents and smuggled into Thailand. He was then “sold” to a fishing boat headed for Indonesian waters where he was told that he was never going home, and was never going to be rescued. What followed was a brutal existence of long days with little sleep, no pay, eating scraps of food and drinking dirty water. Requests to go home or escape attempts were met with bloody beatings or being shackled in chains. Myint was able to escape by jumping into the sea in the middle of the night and swimming to shore, fearing for his life the whole time.
Sadly, stories like Myint’s have been going on for decades. People (from primarily Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar) have routinely been duped by promises of high wages, and then trafficked into the Thai fishing industry only to become modern day slaves. Several AP journalists—who had heard the whispers of these slave-like conditions—have risked their lives investigating the plight of the captive laborers. When a Pulitzer Prize winning expose was published in 2015, the local and international communities finally took notice and responded. Thailand, perhaps the worst violator of slave labor in Asia, vowed to protect the victims of slavery and wipe out forced labor. Following the story, Thai authorities rescued and freed several thousand slave laborers from boats and slave islands. It also passed laws to fight trafficking and forced labor. In 2016, the US passed a law banning imported goods made by child or slave labor. The EU considered banning all Thai exports because of its poor seafood and labor regulations.
So what has happened since the spotlight was shone on these human rights violations? It seems a lot of the reforms were just for show. Many human rights activists say the tragedy of forced labor continues just as before. The so-called crackdown by the Thai government in 2015 was done more to quell the public outcry following the media attention than to actually end these human rights abuses.
In March 2017, the International Labour Organisation, the UN’s Labor Agency, issued a ruling that Thailand was still failing to protect migrant workers from horrible and abusive conditions following its investigation. The Thai government responded that it has made and continues to make progress in this matter. So at this point, the reforms have been passed and are in the books, but they are just not being enforced. Corruption still runs rampant, and authorities will turn a blind eye to the suffering of the forced laborers for the right price. This status quo cannot be allowed to continue.
 Mason, Margie (2015, July 1). Myanmar Fisherman Goes Home After 22 Years as a Slave. AP. Retrieved from https://www.ap.org
 United Nations, Governing Body, Representation alleging non-observance by Thailand of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930(No. 29), (March 20, 2017) available from http://www.ilo.org/gb/GBSessions/GB329/ins/WCMS_549113/lang–en/index.htm