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Free the seafood slaves

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Was this man exploited for your prawns? Slavery and abuse exposed on Thai fishing boats © Environmental Justice Foundation

If you buy shrimps, tuna or other seafood produced in Thailand, there’s a good chance that they could be tainted by the sweat and labour of trafficked workers, often in conditions akin to slavery.

And chances are, if you eat fish, you will have bought some that originated in Thailand. The third largest seafood exporter in the world, it provided the EU with more than US$1.5 billion of seafood in 2012 while the value of seafood imported by the United States exceeded $1.6 billion in 2013.

It is not breaking news that this cash-rich export industry is made possible by the widespread use of trafficked, forced and slave labour. But Thailand has claimed it is cleaning up the industry. However, Britain-based NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has uncovered onoing abuse in a new report Slavery at Sea.

One young man related how he had fallen prey to traffickers. ‘The guys who brought us here were experts...’ he recalled. ‘We starved on the way. Then they took us by police car and we were transferred to the pier. There we were sold.’

His story is all too common. Aged 20 he decided to leave Myanmar in search of a well-paid job in Thailand. He arrived at the border town of Myawaddy and was befriended by a man who promised him a good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand.

With 36 other Burmese migrants he began a trek through the forest into Thailand that for some would lead to being sold onto Thai fishing boats; others wouldn’t complete the journey at all. Three travelers were lost along the way, including an elderly man who the group believes was murdered for complaining about the difficult journey.

On the other side of the forest, small groups were transferred into two marked police cars and driven by men in plain clothes for the remainder of the journey to Chonburi Province. Finding himself at a port, the 21 year old realized he had been lied to. He objected to working on a boat, but one by one the group were lured outside and individually coerced onto the vessel.

He worked on the boat for 10 months, without pay. He recounts how he and his fellow crew suffered horrific abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf. ‘I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored, and he hit me from behind,’ he said. ‘It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious and he smashed my face against the ice.’

Always confined to the boat when in port, the workers felt escape was impossible. Police officers were known to return or re-traffick escaped workers to boat owners offering the best price. On one occasion, however, the young man feigned illness and was let ashore. He managed to get to a nearby bridge where he slept and at first light he commenced his escape, quickly leaving the region by bus and managing to get away undetected.

Slavery at Sea – EJF’s fourth field investigation in Thailand – unmasked the false nature of  Thai Government’s persistent claims that they are cracking down on trafficking and slavery in fisheries. It found more endemic corruption, poor enforcement, inadequate victim support, unacceptable working conditions and violent abuses of migrant workers. Vulnerable individuals are still being misled and mistreated, and it is happening right now. But solutions are possible. As a recent trafficking victim said: ‘Consumers will buy and eat fish as long as they can afford to. But if they knew about us, I think they would have sympathy and no longer consume these products.’ Our governments and the international seafood industry must stop ignoring this, demand immediate reform or else refuse Thai seafood that is produced by slaves. The Thai Government can stop these appalling abuses. The EJF is calling for comprehensive action to arrest, prosecute and convict the traders and abusers, and to see all seafood slaves freed.

Steve Trent is the Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Read the full report and watch the film Slavery at Sea

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