The Problem with Seafood from Thailand
Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, behind only China and Norway. Every year, the Thai fishing fleet finds itself short by about 60,000 crew members, so human traffickers help boat captains fill that gap by kidnapping men from Thailand or luring men from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cambodia onto the boats with false promises.
Once aboard, the workers toil for years in horrific, extremely dangerous conditions, including 20-hour workdays, homogenous diets of scrap or “trash” fish, cramped quarters, and physical and mental abuse. Some never see land for years.
Only one in six Thai fishing boats is registered—the rest operate as a “ghost fleet”, coming into port and leaving without registering their presence or their workers with authorities.
After hearing stories on the street in Myanmar about men disappearing from villages to become modern-day slaves on fishing boats in Thailand, journalist Becky Palmstrom knew she had to act.
She teamed up with award-winning journalist Shannon Service, and the two women set out to uncover what was happening to the disappearing fishermen. After nine months of on-the-ground investigations in Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Cambodia, they released a two-part series for National Public Radio that told the stories of several fishermen who had indeed been enslaved on Thai fishing boats. With this series, the two were among the first to break the story in the US and in many countries abroad, and, in the words of Matthew Friedman from the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, “helped to bring international attention to the plight of fisherman in the Mekong Region.”
Today, Palmstrom and Service are completing The Ghost Fleet, a ten-minute short film that expands their NPR piece, and they’re working to turn the hundreds of hours of footage they and their crew have filmed into a long documentary.
Green America’s Tracy Fernandez Rysavy talked to Shannon Service about her experiences with the “ghost fleet” fishermen.
photo by Shannon Service
In part because so many young men are being enslaved on Thai fishing boats, families in Cambodia lack able-bodied men to help make ends meet.
Green American/Tracy: What’s the status with your film, The Ghost Fleet, and what are you hoping turning your NPR piece into a documentary will accomplish?
Shannon: We’re finished with the first round of filming, where we interviewed several men who had escaped from Thai fishing boats. We plan to put out a short film in the next several months and use it to raise money for a long feature.
One of the things we are trying to do is provide the story and the in-depth human aspect to this whole landscape. The advocacy piece is coming together with a number of organizations working on the issue. What we think we can provide is the stories of a few people whose experiences stick in your mind and capture your heart and show you that these are guys ... I was going to say they’re normal, everyday guys, but I can’t because they’ve been on a crazy odyssey.
Green American/Tracy: Right. How does that odyssey start? How are the men lured onto the fishing boats?
Shannon: Inside Thailand, the biggest route is being drugged in a bar or brothel and kidnapped, especially in port towns, because it’s all about the captains needing crew.
For people outside of Thailand, probably the biggest route to ending up on a Thai boat is that they’re sold straight out of their villages—usually by people they know—to brokers, who make money by selling men. It’s an informal network that stretches into villages in Myanmar and Cambodia.
A cousin or neighbor might say, “Things aren’t going so well with your rice harvest. I can get you a great job in Thailand, where the baht is strong, in a factory or other situation. You’ll make three times as much money, and you can come back whenever you want.”
The cousin or neighbor will get paid by a broker, who will sell men to another broker and then to another. A broker at the border will then smuggle them across and sell them to Thai brokers, who sell them again to others, who sell them to fishing boat captains. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to track, like a spider web. In some cases, the men do end up in good factory jobs, work in good conditions, and can leave when they want. Those men come back and build expensive houses in their villages, so other men think, “That looks great; I want that, too.”
The problem is you just don’t know where someone will end up, especially with the hand-offs from broker to broker. The biggest deciding factor is whether someone has enough money to pay the brokers. If a worker can pay, chances are high he’ll end up in a good situation, because he’s the client. Because most are coming from economic hardship, the next broker is the client, and the men aren’t—they’re the goods. So they’re shuttled along, and they take their chances.
A lot of migrant workers come to Thailand, and brokers will approach them and lie: “I’ll take you to a warehouse, or a short-haul ship that goes out and comes back in the evening.” And then it goes out for years.
Green American/Tracy: Tell me about the conditions the men endure once they’re on the boats.
Shannon: First of all, the boats are not large. They’re about the size of an 18-wheeler with ten men working aboard. These men are usually from different countries, speaking different languages. A lot have historic problems or wars between them, and they might not like each other much. So they’re living and working inside a very confined space, typically without proper medicine. If someone gets cut, they may die of infection. They don’t have access to a variety of food and are mainly eating trash fish that won’t sell.
There are resupply boats that come out to meet the fishing boats, which is what allows them to stay out at sea for so long. Captains don’t want to bring their boats close to shore, because they’ll lose their slaves. The resupply boats bring ice, food, men, and bring the fish back to shore so the boats can stay out there. I met one guy who was out for ten years without seeing land at all.
photo by Shannon Service
Sok Chan, one of the fisherman in the Ghost Fleet documentary, was lured onto a Thai fishing boat by the promise of good pay. He wasn’t paid at all and ended up escaping.
The men will work up to 20 hours, sometimes more, at a stretch. The captains often give them methamphetamines to keep them working for hours without full nutrition. It’s a common thing that they will kill each other. They’re growing stronger through work, and they start to come into conflict because they’re in a small space and on amphetamines.
So conflict is common, and it takes violence to control them. They’re beaten routinely with engine belts, butts of rifles, stingray tails. I talked to one man who saw his crewmates beheaded. It’s not at all uncommon to pull up body parts in their nets. Every single guy I talked to, well over a dozen, told me a captain or slave master had killed someone in front of him.
One of the major problems is that the boats aren’t tracked, and the men on them aren’t tracked. These boats are called the “ghost fleet,” because they come in, leave, and no one knows how many men are on them or what their names are. Nobody tracks that ten men left and nine came back.
On the flip side, many men are able to keep themselves largely sane, keep each other sane, and develop friendships that keep each other safe. I heard many examples of heroism and sacrifice in these conditions.
There was a father and son who jumped ship and were sheltered by a Cambodian crew on a resupply boat. They hid in the ice compartment of the boat in total darkness and cold until they escaped to shore. The crew risked their lives—if they’d been caught, they’d surely have been killed.
Green American/Tracy: You said one of the purposes of your film is to put a human face on this issue. Would you share one of the fishermen’s stories with us?
Shannon: One of the guys we’ve focused on in the short film is Asorasak Thama. He actually was tricked onto a Thai fishing boat by a friend of his. The friend said he’d get plenty of money and have great working conditions, and he could come back after a few weeks. He wasn’t paid at all, and he was kept out at sea for a year. The only reason he made it home was that the boat was captured [by authorities] while illegally fishing in Indonesian waters.
Years later, he was drinking in southern Thailand and was drugged and ended up on a fishing boat again. He told us that when he woke up, “It was horrifying, but I also knew what to do. I’d done this before, so it wasn’t as horrifying as the first time.”
Fishing is incredibly intense, dangerous work, so he felt that at least this time, he knew how to fish. He did fish with the second boat for several months—the time frames are always a little squishy, because it’s not like they are sitting there with a calendar.
One day, he started arguing with his captain, who had been known to kill people in the past. So when boat came into shore to get a fishing license from Malaysia, he waited until the captain had had a few drinks, then punched him and ran.
photo by Shannon Service
Vannak Prum left his village in Cambodia looking for work. He was enslaved on a Thai boat for three years before he escaped.
He had no way home. It takes a lot of money, and he had no passport. Men like him jump ship, they go through unbelievable things [to escape], and then they can’t get home. He had to make his way working on palm oil plantations. He eventually met a nice local guy, Sani, who used hand signals to ask if he was hungry. Sani took him in and fed him, housed him with his family. Turns out Sani was a local fisherman, so Asorasak and Sani would fish, and Asorasak was able to keep some of the catch. But it wasn’t enough to earn his way back.
When our crew met him in this remote area of Borneo, we told him we knew some organizations who could get him home. There’s a small network of local organizations that have been helping men like him—none of which have it in their mandate to do this, but they just ended up doing it. They work with the governments to raise money and get men repatriated.
It took over 70 days for him to get travel documents, but he did manage to get home, and we followed him.
We don’t know where his mom is, because she was working. His sister and aunts were there, uncles, cousins. It’s a small town, so everyone was really happy to see him. Looking at family, most were older. He was the only young, able-bodied guy that I saw. In a rural family, that’s a really big deal.
That also points to another major issue. If you go to parts of Cambodia, and probably Myanmar, there are basically no able-bodied working men, just old men and boys. They’re not all slaves on Thai boats, but seeing that lack gives you a sense of the outflow of men trying to support families. When they don’t send money back or don’t come back, it’s a major problem. Fields don’t get sown, families don’t eat. Every one of the men [we talked to] was tied to a family who has been struggling.
The scale [of the slavery problem on Thai boats] is hard to gauge because it’s all underground. But so many men are absent from Cambodia and Myanmar because they’ve been enslaved. And there are so many extra men in the southern regions of Asia like Indonesia and Malaysia. According to the ambassador in charge of human trafficking for the US State Department, there are so many absent, it’s knocking the entire economy of Southeast Asia off kilter.
Take Action: Green America campaign
For the past few years, Green America has worked to protect the rights of fisherman in Thailand. In 2014, in response to pressure from NGOs including Green America, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to “tier 3,” or the worst level, in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, This downgrade sent a strong message to the Thai government to end the corruption that allows human trafficking to persist.
Recently, the Thai government proposed a scheme to supply prison laborers to fishing boats—a plan that would replace one vulnerable population (migrants) with another (prisoners) and would do nothing to prevent human rights abuses. In January 2015, Green America and our allies were quick to oppose this plan in the press, and the Thai government has stated it will not move forward.
The Thai government is not the only actor that bears responsibility for labor abuse in the country’s fishing sector. Global seafood companies profit tremendously from cheap labor and lax regulation in Thailand. In 2014, the Guardian connected the “trash fish” used to feed shrimp sold in Costco and Walmart to slave labor.
Sign our online petition demanding that Costco source from only sustainable and socially responsible fisheries and fish farms, and trace its shrimp down to the boat level, including the boats catching “trash-fish” used as feed on fish farms.
Green American/Tracy: Does the slavery ever come to an end nonviolently? Or is this just an indefinite condition for these workers until they are killed or can escape?
Shannon: There are some good captains who will drop off men who are too unruly or too ill. But it sounds like that’s pretty rare.
There’s a rumor, I haven’t seen it, that there are some remote islands where men are dropped off. I don’t know under what kind of conditions. [We’re investigating that as] part of the bigger feature. What it sounds like to me is that it’s more a matter of expediency. If the boats happen to be close to these islands, they’ll drop men off. If it’s easier to simply kill, that’s often what’s done.
Sometimes the boats will illegally fish inside the boundaries of other countries. If they’re busted, eventually the crew will go home. Although sometimes the crew will be prosecuted for the crime they “committed” while enslaved.
Sometimes the boats do come back to shore to be repaired. If there’s a crew member who’s too sick to work, he’ll be let off, and more men will be bought.
Every guy I talked to so far has escaped. I have yet to talk to someone who didn’t have to jump ship or hitch a ride or punch his captain to get home.
Green American/Tracy: You said that the Thai government and police are complicit in the slavery on boats.
Shannon: Usually you have large groups of men who are moving [illegally] through borders and ports. That doesn’t happen without it being noticed. The local police, particularly at the ports, are being paid by the brokers or boat captains to look the other way.
We interviewed the governor of a Thai district where men are commonly trafficked. Probably thousands of men are going through the border checkpoint [in his district], so we asked him why he wasn’t doing anything about it. He said because the military and police are paid off—they won’t arrest anyone because they’re in pockets of traffickers.
Then you have police who, as [non-Thai] workers are being transported illegally from the border to the boats, will stop the trucks. The men are stacked like lumber in the back of these trucks, with a tarp thrown over them, and the drivers regularly take certain routes. The police will pull them over and bust everyone on immigration charges. Then they’ll extort everyone on the truck, including the enslaved men.
There are a lot of reports that the police in southern Thailand are busting boats for having undocumented workers on board. They’ll arrest the workers, and then sell them to other fishing boat captains.
We went into a station and asked [about this practice]. At first, the police fully denied it. Then they said, “Okay, it happened here, but it wasn’t us.”
Green American/Tracy: What is the connection between this issue and exploitation on palm oil plantations?
Shannon: Boats will go out in middle of ocean when they have slaves [to keep them from escaping]. Fish like being close to shore, so there isn’t a lot in the middle of the ocean. If you’re a boat captain, you may have to chase fish into the border waters of other countries. You can either do pirate fishing, or, if you’re afraid of getting caught, you apply for a fishing license.
The point is that the boats will come close to shore to pirate fish or to obtain a legal fishing license. That’s when men jump, and there are areas where men have historically jumped ship in Indonesia and Malaysia. The police figured out that they could wait for the men.
The men would jump, run, hide. They’d go to the police speaking a foreign language, saying, “Cambodia”, “Myanmar”, or “Vietnam”, and police would put them back on boats or sell them to palm oil plantations.
The plantations are better than the boats, but we’re comparing horrors. They’re forced to work, and then there’s a company store where they’re charged at exorbitant rates for the things they need. Every month, they find they have to keep working to pay a debt they can never work off. They have to run again from the palm oil plantation.
Vannak Prum, one of the men we talked to, was kept on a fishing boat for three years. He jumped to one of the areas where police would wait for the escaped men, and he was sold to a palm oil plantation. Malaysia has since cleaned up that area, but it was like that for a long time.
Vannak worked at a couple of palm oil plantations before he could escape again.
Choose Fish Responsibly
Over the past decade, global awareness of overfishing has grown, and in response, a number of standards and certification bodies have been developed to ensure the world doesn’t fish the ocean empty. However, there is still work to be done with seafood companies and certifiers to address human rights issues in production, not only environmental problems.
Here are some labels you are likely to encounter at the grocery store and what they mean (and don’t mean):
The MSC and ASC standards help ensure fish was caught or farmed in a sustainable way. These standards focus primarily on ecological issues, such as preventing overfishing, minimizing the environmental impact of a fishing operation, and monitoring waste water and genetic diversity. These standards do not focus on human rights issues; however, they do require certified partners to follow local labor laws.
At present, neither MSC nor ASC has certified any fishing operation in Thailand.
Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP)
BAP certification focuses on the sustainability of fish farms, as well as hatcheries and processing facilities. The BAP standard includes provisions for both environmental and human rights issues. BAP has certified hundreds of fishing operations throughout Asia, Australia, the US and Mexico, and South America.
Green American/Tracy: What are the men enslaved on these boats catching, and how can Americans avoid fish that’s connected to the Thai fleet?
Shannon: They’re catching everything—tuna, squid, etc. The boats send the fish back to Thailand to be processed, canned, frozen, and sent elsewhere. The stuff that is transported mainly to us in the States comes in the form of pet food or frozen fish. If you go to frozen food aisle in the grocery store and pull out fish, if it says “product of Thailand,” it doesn’t necessarily mean slaves caught that fish, but there’s a higher likelihood. The likelihood is lower that fresh fish on ice is coming from Thailand.
I personally avoid frozen and canned fish products that are coming from Thailand, and I try to make sure that fish I eat is fresh, ideally local, ideally seasonal.
There’s no independent certification that ensures boats are tracked through the supply chain. It does come down to US consumers putting pressure on supermarkets to put fish on the shelves that they know to be ethical. And therefore, it’s up to supermarkets to use their purchasing power to choose clear supply chains that customers can check ourselves, or to go through a third-party to examine the supply chain to make sure there’s no slavery or forced labor. It’s within their power. But whether they take those steps will depend on the consumer.
The Ghost Fleet Movie website includes the original NPR story on the Thai fishing fleet, as well as information about the upcoming short- and long-documentary.
Greenpeace USA’s “Carting Away the Oceans” report ranks US retailers based on their commitment to selling environmentally sustainable seafood. In their 2014 report, Whole Foods, Safeway, Wegmans, and Trader Joes all earned high marks for sustainable sourcing, while Kroger and Publix scored near the bottom.
The International Organization on Migration released a report in 2011 on the Thai fishing industry, “Tracking of Fishermen in Thailand”, and assists escaped fishing workers.
Seafood Watch, a program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, helps people choose fish that are farmed/caught sustainably and avoid those that are overfished. Its free guides are updated throughout the year and by region.
Slavery Footprint in Oakland, CA, helps former Thai fishing workers get home and obtain mental health services.
Tenaganita, based in Kuala Lumpur, aids refugees in southeast Asia, including helping escaped Thai fishing workers get back home.