Slaves at sea
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Slaves at sea

Fair treatment of fishery workers remains a distant dream despite steps in recent years to crack down on some of the worst abuses.

Migrant labourers work on a fishing boat docked at a pier in Phangnga province in southern Thailand. Photo: Patipat JanthongP
Migrant labourers work on a fishing boat docked at a pier in Phangnga province in southern Thailand. Photo: Patipat JanthongP

"Working on a boat faced with violence and abuse, in the middle of the ocean where you couldn't see the shore, it seems like there was no future for us at all."

The description is taken from the account of an unnamed Myanmar national, tricked and forced into labour aboard Thai fishing vessels, in the Greenpeace report Turning the Tide.

He is sadly not in the minority. More than 1.5 million labour migrants are settled in Thailand, with around 300,000 in the fishing industry alone. Many of them face mistreatment and witness abuses that have drawn comparisons to modern-day slavery.

Tricked and manipulated into fishing work, migrants originating predominantly from Myanmar and Cambodia can spend months at sea where basic nutrition and provisions are largely absent.

Released in December 2016, Turning the Tide is the result of a year of research and interviews by Greenpeace on the perils migrants face aboard Thai shipping vessels on the high seas.

Thailand's military government has introduced a number of laws to reform the industry by cracking down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and abuses of workers.

However, bringing thousands of vessels into compliance is time-consuming and some will inevitably continue to find ways to evade the law.

The European Union, meanwhile, continues to apply a "yellow card" to the country, meaning that unless IUU issues are addressed more substantively, it could ban imports of Thai seafood.

In a recent interview with Asia Focus, Anchalee Pipattanwattanakul, an ocean campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, further expanded on the damning findings in the report, illustrating how loopholes in labour migration channels and related laws have allowed thousands of people to be exploited and abused.

"Most of them are forced into work and forced into a very hard routine," she said. "They didn't know what situation they would find when arriving on the boats. Most hadn't ever seen the sea."

The shadowy and undocumented nature of the recruitment process means that exploitation and trickery are rife. A broker is paid a variable sum by the fishing company for each person it recruits. This cost is then passed on to the worker by the company, ensuring that the labourer is now working to pay off his debt.

"Most come via a broker," Ms Anchalee explained. "They then have to pay for transport, a passport, their visa, everything. But the important thing is, they don't have the proper papers or documents. Most of their documents are forged or fake."

In Turning the Tide, Greenpeace tells the story of 19 Cambodians, recruited to work on the vessel Sor Somboon. "All claimed they had signed no contract with their employer," the report says. "Instead, work was undertaken on the basis of verbal agreements that they would receive 8,000 baht a month, payable as a lump sum at the end of a two-year period."

Almost none of the workers saw the promised sum at the end of the two-year period. Employers argue that the lesser sum paid reflects recruitment and food costs owed to them by the workers.

Debt bondage, explains Ms Anchalee, is commonplace. "They have to work to pay back a certain amount of money to pay back their debt." The figure often bears no relation to the actual cost of the recruitment, and in some cases becomes nearly impossible to pay off.

"Sometimes, when they get to visit land, when they want to buy cigarettes or coffee, they have to take out a further loan from the captain of the ship. The captain is like the debt collector."

The current recruitment process is illegal and inhumane at the best of times, but the lines are easily blurred and frequently shift into the territory of human trafficking.

In early 2016, the Thai government rescued 15 Cambodian victims from aboard a tuna vessel. Greenpeace was granted access to interview them, and learned that all but one had been aboard the vessel for 13 straight months.

They were told by brokers that they would be working onshore in Thailand in a fish processing factory, paid 8,000 baht a month for eight hours of work a day, with food and clothing all provided. It was, of course, too good to be true.

Even with the recent reduction in the cost of Cambodia passports to less than US$10 for those seeking work in Thailand, the labourers were told that each passport would cost $250, to be paid back out of their wages. They were then taken to the coastal province of Samut Sakhon and almost immediately put onto a fishing vessel.

Half of the trafficked Cambodians attempted to escape, only to be caught by police who confiscated their phones and brought them straight back to the property of the company that now "owned" them. They were told that they had been purchased from the broker for 30,000 baht each, which they would have to repay if they wanted their freedom.

Even more prevalent than debt bondage, however, are the startlingly poor working conditions on fishing vessels.

"Their work routine is not like yours or mine, eight hours, 9 to 5," Ms Anchalee said. "They have to work depending on the season, day and situation on the boat at the time. If there is a large catch of fish, that will be forced to work for 20 hours a day."

Greenpeace was told of numerous instances of physical violence. One migrant said. "I was so sick once that I went down to the hold to rest. The captain came in and started beating me with a stick, accusing me of being lazy. I told him I was sick and needed to rest, but he just kept beating me, forcing me to work."

Alongside instances of physical violence, disease and illness are rife among the ill-treated and malnourished fisherman.

According to Ms Anchalee, most of them spend at least three months on boats, where a lack of food and essential nutrients leads to many developing beriberi. Beriberi affects the heart and circulatory system, potentially leading to heart failure, and is caused by vitamin B1 deficiency.

"Every three months they are given new supplies of food," Greenpeace's Somrudee Panasudtha told Asia Focus. "But they tell us the amount of food is not enough. It only lasts for around two months. After this they have to eat only rice, with no vegetables or no fruit, nowhere near enough for essential nutrition."

Often seen among people whose diet consists of mainly polished white rice, beriberi is painful and can be life-threatening. As described in the report, it leads to "swelling and pain of the limbs, loss of sensation and paralysis, shortness of breath and finally cardiovascular failure". The World Health Origination notes that beriberi has a high mortality rate.

In early 2016, Greenpeace investigated reports of numerous beriberi-related deaths on two trawlers returning from the Indian Ocean.

"A total of 32 crew members had been affected by health complications arising from vitamin B1 deficiencies and a further six were subsequently determined to have beriberi," the report said.

Some of the 32 crew members had been at sea for nine months straight. With the vegetable and meat rations depleted around 15 days after each new food delivery, their diet consisted heavily of solely white rice.

This group all "had contracted beriberi with five fatalities resulting from the disease", the report said. An official government investigation into the fatalities concluded that the men had died of heart failure -- at its root caused by poor nutrition.

Ms Anchalee said some workers try to catch their own fish to supplement their diet, and some even are forced to try and catch low-flying seabirds.

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