Consumers and governments around the world being warned to ensure the seafood from Thailand does not involve human trafficking and forced labour
In 2011, Saw Win, 57, migrated to Thailand to find a job, hoping to earn money to send to his family in Burma.
He told Human Rights Watch that he traveled with a broker he had met in the town of Kawthaung at the southern tip of Burma, who said he would get him across the border and secure a food processing job that would pay 150 baht (US$4.50) a day.
When Saw Win arrived in Kantang, a port town in Trang province on Thailand’s southwest coast, he was confined to a room with 40 other men. In the morning, the men were separated and sold to different brokers controlling migrant crews working at the town’s various fishing piers. Saw Win said he worked on a trawler with no pay for three months.
He assumed he would be set free when the boat returned to port, but the broker’s men were waiting at the pier and locked him away again, this time for three days. Saw Win’s broker then sold him to a boat in Songkhla, on Thailand’s southeast coast. A carrier boat transported him into the South China Sea where he was forced to board a purse seiner, fishing illegally for mackerel, in Indonesian waters.
The Thai skipper regularly beat the crew with an iron rod and threatened them at gunpoint. “Payment” was meager amounts of food, withheld if the skipper did not think the crew had worked hard enough. Some men became malnourished and seriously ill, contracting diseases like scabies. One crew member became so sick he could no longer work. Saw Win said that he was still conscious when the skipper threw him overboard. The man drowned.
Saw Win was eventually sold at sea to another Thai purse seine boat. By now valued as a more experienced crew member, he was physically abused less than others. But crew members were brutally punished, such as the ethnic Mon fisher held responsible for a torn net: “The skipper was angry and started to beat the Mon boatswain to punish him. Then the skipper pushed the boatswain to the deck and strangled him to death and threw his body into the sea. I was so scared.”
One night, Saw Win decided to jump overboard near the Malaysian coast. Luckily, another passing Thai purse seiner plucked him from the water and concealed him on the boat. Soon afterward, he set foot in Malaysia, his first time on land in almost two years.
Saw Win eventually returned to his home in Burma, where in September 2016, he spoke about his ordeal to Human Rights Watch.
He was one of 248 current and former fishers from the region the NGO interviewed for its report 134-page report, entitled “Hidden Chains: Forced Labor and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry,” which describes how migrant fishers are being used as slaves.
Forced labor and other rights abuses are widespread in Thailand’s fishing fleets despite government commitments to comprehensive reforms, Human Rights Watch said in the report released this week. The report and a 15-minute film were also released at a briefing at the European Parliament.
“Consumers in Europe, the US, and Japan should be confident that their seafood from Thailand didn’t involve trafficked or forced labor,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW said. “Yet despite high-profile commitments by the Thai government to clean up the fishing industry, problems are rampant.”
“The Thai government’s lack of commitment means that regulations and programs to prevent forced labor in the fishing industry are failing,” Adams said. “International producers, buyers, and retailers of Thai seafood have a key role in ensuring that forced labor and other abuses come to an end.”
Watch the video
Testimony from Fishers
“I didn’t know what was going on when I arrived. They just put me in a lockup, and it was only when the boat came in that I realized that was where I’d have to work. I went to do my pink card application on the 4th, and on the 5th I was out on the boat.”
–Burmese trafficking survivor, Bang Rin, Ranong province, March 2016
“If I want to quit working here I need to request permission from the employer. Some employers allow us to leave, but some will claim we must pay off debts first. For example, if I can pay 25,000 baht [US$762] to an employer … he may allow me to leave, but if he isn’t satisfied … I would have to pay whatever he demanded.”
–Thet Phyo Lin, Burmese fisher, Mueang Pattani, Pattani province, August 2016
“You can’t leave because if you leave you won’t get paid, and if you want to leave at the end it’s only if they let you. Unless you leave without your money and your [pink] card, you have to obtain their permission.”
–Bien Vorn, Cambodian fisher, Mueang Rayong, Rayong province, November 2016
“My pink card is with my employer. [He keeps it] because some of us run away without having paid off our debts yet. Some employers think that we will lose [the cards] or run away from them.”
–Veseth San, Cambodian fisher, Mueang Rayong, Rayong province, November 2016
“[The Thai officials] come maybe 10 at a time in a vehicle – men and women. They have us line up, show our pink cards, call out our names, we raise our hands, they’re gone.”
–Tong Seng, Cambodian fisher, Mueang Rayong, Rayong province, November 2016
We don’t have time for actual rest. For example, we’ll depart at 6 a.m. from the port and then deploy the nets to catch the fish, and after a while we haul up the load. We’ll do that routinely until late at night, depending on the amount of fish we catch. So it’s already the morning of the next day by the time we get back to port. However, we don’t have a chance to rest because then we have to start unloading all the fish.”
–Sai Tun Aung Lwin, Burmese fisher, Ratsada, Phuket province, March 2016
“It was torture. One time I was so tired I fell off the boat, but they pulled me back on board.”
–Zin Min Thet, Burmese trafficking survivor, Bang Rin, Ranong province, March 2016