Walking the Plank: Slavery in the Thai Seafood Industry

In 2016, four Associated Press journalists walked in front of the staff to hear that they had won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Thanks to their investigative work, more than 2000 victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia walked free, some after decades of slavery in the fishing industry. In the wake of the articles Mendoza, McDowell, Htusan and Mason published, ships and cargo worth millions of dollars were seized and new legislation proposing greater transparency for the U.S. food industry was signed by President Obama. With 21 million victims of human trafficking, there are more slaves in the world today than ever before. AP’s investigative work discovered that seafood caught and processed by modern-day slaves in Southeast Asia is sold in European and North-American markets.

Fishing is an important source of income for the poor in Southeast Asia. Families may rely completely on the profits made from small-scale fishing, or fish to generate extra income. The fishing industry is indeed so important that about 30 per cent of the animal protein in a typical diet in the region comes from fish. On a larger scale, seafood is an enormous global market. Thailand, one of the world’s biggest seafood exporters, earns about $7 billion annually from their seafood industry that ships its catch mainly to the U.S., Europe and Japan. The fish caught by Thai boats do not come just from local waters; the boats sail as far as to Arafura Sea, surrounded by Indonesia and Australia, where some of the world’s richest fishing grounds are.

Arafura Sea as seen from Darwin, NT, Australia in 2009. With outdated laws currently in place at international waters, labour rights violations are nearly impossible to monitor on seas and oceans. Kumukulanui, Flickr CC.

The Thai fishing industry does not only operate in international waters, but also exploits international labour as well. Most of the foreign labour force comes from its poor neighbouring countries, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. While there may be over three million migrant workers in Thailand, an estimated 200,000 migrant workers are employed in the fishing industry. Many of them are victims of human trafficking. Banned by UN conventions as well as local and international jurisdiction, human trafficking is often called the modern day slave trade. Modern-day human trafficking differs from the slave trade of the ancient world and Trans-Atlantic shipping of slaves by exploiting the vulnerability and poverty of the victims. Instead of physically restraining the poor by putting them in shackles, brokers nowadays rely on coercion and deceit, often travelling abroad to find the future victims and to contact them in person. The poor, deprived and often uneducated fishermen in distant villages in Thailand’s neighbouring countries are promised short fishing gigs on Thai vessels, paying up to $300 for a couple of months’ work. Expecting to make a year’s worth of money, the workers then either agree to borrow money for visas or are smuggled into the destination country. At the destination, the victims’ identity documents are often confiscated and they are coerced into unpaid labour to earn them back and pay for the trafficking network’s expenses. Both at sea and docks, the workers are forced to work up to 18 to 20 hours a day and face physical abuse. In isolated workplaces, without money and having their personal documents confiscated, the workers rarely manage to escape. The US State Department ranked Thailand as a “Tier 3” country in the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, giving it the lowest possible ranking because of Thailand’s lack of effort in combating international and domestic human trafficking.

Picture: Thai fishing boats at Pak Phanang, Thailand. Boats like these may keep at sea for months at a time. Will Anderson, Flickr CC.

The size of the seafood industry and the many links of the product chain help in hiding the human rights violations – and connects us and our pets to it. The fish must be caught and the shrimp farmed, and all of the seafood must be processed before transportation. Hazardous work conditions appear to be common at the processing plants throughout Southeast Asia, where the workers are pooled through different contractors, some of whom are involved in human trafficking. This way, the processing plants avoid having any contact with the labour force and avoid responsibility for labour or human rights violations. Workers at processing plants work long hours without breaks, are denied access to toilets and fall victim to wage-theft. At the processing plants, seafood from different sources are mixed, and it becomes impossible to track where a certain tuna or shrimp is exported to. The Southeast Asian seafood industry targets foreign markets, and European and North American food companies such as Wal-Mart, Tesco and Nestlé are linked to the exploitative seafood sources. Fish and shrimp caught and processed by slaves have been traced to both final food products and pet food.

Tuna and shrimp are Thailand’s most important seafood products to the international markets. Especially shrimp, which is becoming an increasingly popular food product in the U.S. As we have grown accustomed to having exotic, delicious and healthy seafood on a regular basis, the question we must find an answer to is how to make sure the tuna and shrimp we eat is produced in an ethical and sustainable way. The solutions are not easy but first steps have already been taken to reduce the amount of food produced by slaves in the Western markets. In February 2016, President Obama signed into law the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 that allows Customs and Border Protection to seize shipments that they suspect contains products made by child or forced labour. The EU has given Thailand a “yellow card” for its problems with illegal fishing and human rights violations in the seafood industry, with possible sanctions if improvements are not made. Although a significant shift in the right direction, these means address international trade, not labour exploitation. Poverty in their home countries drives people to emigrate and makes them vulnerable to accepting exploitative and shady work contracts in far-away places. Implementing and enforcing laws that protect both domestic and migrant workers will help in combating human trafficking, while greater transparency and regular monitoring of full supply chains will better inform consumers of how the products they buy are made. Unfortunately, reforms of this scale take a long time to implement. Meanwhile, consuming locally produced food is the safest (and the most environmentally friendly) option. In their statements following the announcement of the 2016 Pulitzer Prizes, the journalists reminded that their exposé led to freeing of only 2000 slaves. That is a fraction of the estimated 21 million victims of human trafficking, so we still have a lot of stories to hear.

Otso Rajala

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