Fishermen slaves going home after being tricked into human trafficking

Hundreds of men who were sold as slaves are heading back home after being sold as slaves to poach for fish for export.

A Home Coming Years in The Making
Rescue 1

Myat Ko Ko Lay leaves Ambon after being tricked by human traffickers a year ago. (Photo: Achmad Ibrahim, Associated press, September 8, 2015)

Dozens of Burmese men in the bustling port town of Ambon were the latest to go home, some more than a decade after being trafficked onto Thai trawlers as slaves to poach fish for export to the U.S. Grabbing one another’s hands, the men walked together towards buses last week. As they pulled away for the airport, some of those still waiting their turn to go home cheered, throwing their arms in the air.

“I’m sure my parents think I’m dead,” said Tin Lin Tun, 25, who lost contact with his family subsequent to a broker luring him to Thailand five years ago. Instead of working in construction, as promised, he was sold onto a fishing boat and taken to Indonesia. “I’m their only son. They’re going to cry so hard when they see me.”

For many, the return home is bittersweet. Parents’ collapse in tears upon seeing their sons and some men met siblings born after they left. But almost all came back empty-handed, struggle to find jobs, and feel they are yet another burden to their poor families. At least one crowd-sourcing site, set up by Anti-Slavery International, hopes to affect their progress.

Those stuck on Thai fishing boats and others who had escaped into the jungle — were the first to go home when rescues led by the Indonesian government began in early April. Since then, hundreds more have been identified and repatriated from neighboring islands. Many of those leaving recently from Ambon were handed cash payments by company officials but they said the money was a fraction of what they were owed.

“We’ve never seen a rescue on this scale before,” said Lisa Rende Taylor, an anti-trafficking expert formerly with the U.N. who now heads the anti-slavery nonprofit Project Issara. “They deserve compensation and justice.”

AP shows the rotten side of the fish business

Last year, the Associated Press tracked fish — caught by men who were savagely beaten and caged — from a slave island in eastern Indonesia to the supply chains of some of America’s biggest food sellers, such as Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, and popular brands of canned pet food like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can also be used as calamari at fine restaurants, as imitation crab in a sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.

Kyaw Naing

Former slave Kyaw Naing held in his rusted cell as he awaits to return home. (Photo: Associated press, November 27, 2014)

A year-long investigation led the AP to the island village of Benjina, part of Indonesia’s Maluku chain about four hundred miles north of Australia. There, workers who were considered runaway risks, were padlocked behind the rusty bars of a cage.

The largest impact, by far, has been the rescue of some of the most desperate and isolated people in the world. More than two thousand men from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos have been identified or repatriated since the AP’s initial story ran, according to the International Organization for Migration and foreign ministries. The tally includes eight fishermen trafficked aboard a Thai cargo ship seized in neighboring Papua New Guinea.

Scarred for life

Tun Lin, who returned to Myanmar last week, held up his right hand: a stump with just a thumb.

He said one finger was ripped off while he tried to wrangle an unwieldy net on the deck of his boat, and the other three were crushed beyond saving. He was taken by refrigerated cargo delivery ship to Thailand, where the remaining digits were surgically removed. Four days later, he said, he was put back on a ship bound for Indonesia, where he fished for the next three years.

“There were some good captains, but there were a lot of bad ones,” the 33-year-old fisherman said, his eyes filling with tears as he described how “boat leaders” were assigned to act as enforcers, beating up fishermen who weren’t working fast enough. “When we asked for our money, they’d say they didn’t have it … but then they’d go to nightclubs, brothels, and bars, drinking expensive alcohol.”

An AP survey of almost four hundred men underscores the horrific conditions fishing slaves faced. Many described being whipped with stingray tails, deprived of food and water, and forced to work for years in the absence of pay. More than 20 percent said they were beaten, 30 percent said they saw someone else beaten, and 12 percent said they saw a person die.

Maung Soe

Maung Soe holds a copy of his forged seafarer’s book. (Photo: Associated Press, November 27, 2014)

“My colleague, Chit Oo, fell from the boat into the water,” wrote Ye Aung, 32, of Myanmar. “The captain said there was no need to search, he will float by himself later.”

Another man, 18-year-old Than Min Oo, said he was not paid and wrote simply: “Please help me.”

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine earlier this year, based on interviews with over one thousand trafficking survivors from different industries, found half of those returning from slavery at sea suffered from depression and around 40 percent from post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety. Those men were not connected to the Benjina cases.

And those returnee figures don’t tell the whole story: Hundreds more have been quietly sent home by their companies, avoiding human trafficking allegations.

How to change the possibility of future slaves

Many experts believe the most effective pressure for change can come from consumers, whose hunger for cheap seafood is helping fuel the massive labor abuses. Southeast Asia’s fishing industry is dominated by Thailand, which earns $7 billion annually in exports. The business relies on tens of thousands of poor migrant laborers, mainly from neighboring Southeast Asian countries. They’re often tricked, sold, or kidnapped and put onto boats that are commonly sent to distant foreign waters to poach fish.

Florida based South Pacific Specialties, which distributes to supermarket chains, restaurants, and food groups, received a shipping container loaded with frozen tuna from Mabiru in February. Managing partner Francisco Pinto told the AP his company had once rented out Mabiru’s facilities in Ambon, bought tuna from private artisanal fishermen, and hired its own workers for filleting and processing fish. Pinto said he has spent the past six weeks in Indonesia meeting and observing fish suppliers because American customers are increasingly demanding fair treatment for workers.

In the past month, three separate class-action lawsuits have been filed naming Mars Inc., IAMS Co., Proctor & Gamble, Nestle USA Inc., Nestle Purina Pet Care Co. and Costco, accusing them of having seafood supply chains tainted with slave labor. Ashley Klann, who happens to be a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based law firm behind several of the cases, said the litigation “came as a result of AP’s reporting.”

Regardless of the increased global attention, hundreds of thousands of men still are forced to work in the seafood industry. However, new laws have been introduced and the Obama administration is pushing exporters to clean up their labor practices. U.S. companies taking steps in order to prevent it.

“Slavery in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry is a real-life horror story,” said N.J. Rep. Chris Smith, who is currently among those sponsoring new legislation. “It’s no longer acceptable for companies to deny responsibility … not when people are kept in cages, not when people are made to work like animals for decades to pad some company’s bottom line.”

AP writer Robin McDowell contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar, and AP National Writer Martha Mendoza contributed from Washington, D.C., and California. Mason reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.