Labor abuse at sea can be so severe that the boys and men who are its victims might as well be captives from a bygone era. Those who fled recounted horrific violence: the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a fishing hold.
SONGKHLA, Thailand — Lang Long’s ordeal began in the back of a truck. After watching his younger siblings go hungry because their family’s rice patch in Cambodia could not provide for everyone, he accepted a trafficker’s offer to travel across the Thai border for a construction job.
It was his chance to start over. But when he arrived, Long was kept for days by armed men in a room near the port at Samut Prakan, more than a dozen miles southeast of Bangkok. He then was herded with six other migrants up a gangway onto a shoddy wooden ship. It was the start of three brutal years in captivity at sea.
“I cried,” said Long, 30, recounting how he was resold twice between fishing boats. After repeated escape attempts, one captain shackled him by the neck whenever other boats neared.
Long’s crews trawled primarily for forage fish, which are small and cheaply priced. Much of this catch comes from the waters off Thailand, where Long was held, and is sold to the United States, typically for canned cat and dog food or feed for poultry, pigs and farm-raised fish that Americans consume.
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The misery endured by Long, who was rescued by an aid group, is not uncommon in the maritime world. Labor abuse at sea can be so severe that the boys and men who are its victims might as well be captives from a bygone era. In interviews, those who fled recounted horrific violence: the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold.
The harsh practices have intensified in recent years, a review of hundreds of accounts from escaped deckhands provided to police, immigration and human-rights workers shows. That is because of lax maritime labor laws and an insatiable global demand for seafood.
Shipping records, customs data and dozens of interviews with government and maritime officials point to a greater reliance on long-haul fishing, in which vessels stay at sea, sometimes for years, far from the reach of authorities. With rising fuel prices and fewer fish close to shore, fisheries experts predict that more boats will resort to venturing farther, exacerbating the potential for mistreatment.
“Life at sea is cheap,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “And conditions out there keep getting worse.”
While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on U.N. estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.
Many of them, like Long, are lured across the border by traffickers only to become sea slaves in floating labor camps. Often they are beaten for the smallest transgressions, like stitching a torn net too slowly or mistakenly placing a mackerel into a bucket for herring, according to a U.N. survey of about 50 Cambodian men and boys sold to Thai fishing boats. Of those interviewed in the 2009 survey, 29 said they had witnessed their captain or other officers kill a worker.
The migrants, who are relatively invisible because most are undocumented, disappear beyond the horizon on “ghost ships” — unregistered vessels that the Thai government does not know exist.
They usually do not speak the language of their Thai captains, do not know how to swim, and have never seen the sea before being whisked from shore, according to interviews in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. These interviews, in port or on fishing boats at sea, were conducted with more than three dozen current deckhands or former crew members.
Government intervention is rare. While U.N. pacts and various human-rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law-enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas. U.N. officials and rights organizations accuse some of them of taking bribes from traffickers to allow safe passage across the border. Migrants often report being rescued by police officers from one smuggler only to be resold to another.
Long did not know where the fish he caught ended up. He did learn, however, that most of the forage fish on the final boat where he was held in bondage was destined for a cannery called Songkla Canning Public, a subsidiary of Thai Union Frozen Products, the country’s largest seafood company. In the past year, Thai Union has shipped more than 28 million pounds of seafood-based cat and dog food for some of the top brands sold in America, according to U.S. Customs documents.
Though there is growing pressure from Americans and other Western consumers for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains to ensure against illegal fishing and contaminated or counterfeit fish, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people eat, much less the fish that is fed to animals.
Little respite from danger
It is difficult to overstate the dangers of commercial fishing. Two days spent more than 100 miles from shore on a Thai fishing ship with two dozen Cambodian boys, some as young as 15, showed the brutal rhythm of this work.
Rain or shine, shifts run 18 to 20 hours. Summer temperatures top 100 degrees. The deck is an obstacle course of jagged tackle, whirring winches and tall stacks of 500-pound nets. Ocean spray and fish innards make the floor skating-rink slippery. The ship seesaws, particularly in rough seas and gale winds. Most boys work barefoot. Much of this occurs in pitch blackness. Purse seiners, like this ship, usually cast their nets at night when the small silver forage fish they target are easier to spot.
When they are not fishing, the Cambodians, most of whom were recruited by traffickers, sort their catch and fix the nets. One 17-year-old boy proudly showed a hand missing two fingers — severed by a nylon line that had coiled around a spinning crank. The migrants’ hands, which are virtually never fully dry, have open wounds, slit from fish scales and torn from the nets’ friction. They stitch closed the deeper cuts themselves. Infections are constant.
Meals on board consist of a once-daily bowl of rice, flecked with boiled squid or other throwaway fish. In the galley, the wheel room and elsewhere, countertops crawl with roaches. The toilet is a removable wooden floorboard on deck. At night, vermin clean the boys’ unwashed plates.
Litany of abuses
Traveling the coast of the South China Sea, it can seem that every migrant has his own story of abuse.
Skippers never lacked for amphetamines so laborers could work longer, but rarely stocked antibiotics for infected wounds. Former deckhands described “prison islands” — most often uninhabited atolls, of which there are hundreds in the South China Sea. Fishing captains sometimes maroon their captive crews on those islands, sometimes for weeks, while their vessels are taken to port for dry docking and repair.
Thai government officials said they have stepped up the number of investigations and prosecutions and plan to continue doing so. A registration drive is under way to count undocumented workers and provide them with identity cards, added Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Thailand’s ambassador to the United States until this year. The government has also established several centers on the country for trafficking victims.
San Oo, 35, a soft-spoken Burmese man with weather-beaten skin, predicted that until ship captains are prosecuted, little will improve. He described how on his first day of 2½ years in captivity, his captain warned that he had killed the seaman Oo was replacing. “If you disobey or run or get sick I will do it again,” he recalled his captain saying.