Floating Prisons Feed World's Seafood Hunger


Published Mar 23, 2015 4:21 PM by Wendy Laursen

Thailand’s slavery problem is making headlines again. Last week, The Economist published an article describing the plight of Maung Toe, an immigrant from Myanmar, who worked unpaid on a Thai vessel fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. He had been forced on board at gunpoint and sold by a broker to the captain for $900. 

The article references the report Pirates and Slaves, recently released by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). International demand for cheap seafood is fuelling a brutal trade in vulnerable people and the collapse of entire marine ecosystems, says the EJF. 

Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world, with exports valued at $7 billion in 2013. It is a leading supplier of seafood to the U.S., yet a 2014 study estimates that up to 39 percent of wild-caught seafood entering the U.S. market from Thailand has been caught illegally.

Rapid industrialisation of the Thai fishing fleet during the 20th century resulted in too many vessels using destructive and unsustainable fishing methods to catch too many fish, states the report. The overall fish catch per unit of effort in both the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Seas has plummeted by more than 86 percent since 1966, making Thai waters one of the most over-fished regions on the planet. Boats now catch just 14 percent of what they caught in the mid-1960s, and Thailand’s fish stocks and marine biodiversity are in crisis.

“Producers and consumers of Thai seafood are embroiled in one of the most outrageous social and ecological crimes of the 21st century,” says Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF. “Ecosystem decline and slavery exist in a vicious cycle. People are trafficked as a result of environmental crises, and forced to endure terrible human rights abuses while working in industries which also harm the environment. Unrestricted industrial exploitation damages ecosystems and exposes vulnerable populations to trafficking and abuse. Overfishing exacerbates pirate fishing, which further drives slavery and environmental degradation.”

The report highlights the human suffering involved. “…The worst was when I saw one of my co-workers fall into the sea. We were ordered to continue to work and prevented from helping him… He drowned,” recounts one Burmese victim of the industry.

Another victim describes the threat he received from a Thai captain: “I killed the guy that you are replacing. If you try to flee I will take care of you too… Your broker took your advance, so you are not allowed to go anywhere and will be here for many years.”

Last year, The Guardian revealed the abuses some slaves are subject to. Many of the slaves interviewed by the Guardian said they were fed a plate of rice a day and they slept in quarters so cramped they had to crawl into them. Those too ill to work were thrown overboard, some said, while others said they were beaten if they so much as took a lavatory break.
According to the Global Slavery Index, around 500,000 people are believed to be currently enslaved within Thailand’s borders, many of them out at sea on fishing boats. These people are often migrants from Burma and Cambodia looking for work and a better life only to find themselves deceived and in the hands of brokers. 

It has become a factory industry with larger cargo vessels re-supplying fishing boats and picking up their catches. This means the vessels can stay out at sea indefinitely making them “floating prisons for trafficked and abused workers,” says the EJF report. The report cites estimates of as many as 200,000 migrants working on Thai fishing vessels.

Thailand’s role in depleting its ocean resources is contributing to the impacts that IUU fishing is having on the fishing industry globally. This week, the U.S. Presidential Task Force on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud made the headlines with the release of an action plan that articulates an aggressive timetable for taking steps to curtail illegal fishing activities from a U.S. perspective. “Our nation’s fisheries remain threatened by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews on the release of the plan. 

Another article by The Economist last week describes other initiatives, including the establishment of The Global Fund to End Slavery. “The ILO estimates there are at least 21 million people living in modern slavery. That’s nearly equal to the populations of countries such as Australia, Cameroon or Sri Lanka,” says Jean Baderschneider, CEO of The Global Fund to End Slavery. “Over one-quarter of all victims of forced labour around the world are children. That is more than five million children subjected to forced labour, sex trafficking, domestic servitude and other abuses.”

In December, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque, together with several other Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish leaders, launched the Global Freedom Network, an initiative aimed at helping governments and businesses address the problem of slavery. 

The leaders jointly declared one common humanitarian endeavour: “To eradicate modern slavery by 2020 throughout our world and for all time as a crime against humanity.”

“Slaves no more. We are all brothers and sisters,” said Pope Francis.

Read the EJF report here. Watch the EJF video here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.