How did the EJF Save Thailand’s Fishing Slaves?


“After 3 nights we were told that one of us would be executed. We had to draw straws to decide who would be killed. If the police had come one hour later we would have been killed already.” –An escaped slave

The London-based non-profit organization Environmental Justice Fund (EJF) recently released a report on the state of human trafficking in Thailand, called ‘Sold to the Sea.’ In it, former fishing boat slaves provide accounts of torture and “casual homicide” committed by captains and crews onboard numerous fishing vessels. The results of their 2009 survey were very clear: Thailand’s fishing industry is one of the worst examples of modern slavery.

Thailand’s $7.3 billion fishery export business is the third most valuable in the world. One in six pounds of seafood sold in the United States comes from the small nation, which also supplies Europe and most of Asia. The high demand in the industry has created an increase in foreign migrant workers traveling to Thailand in order to fill labor needs. However, the Thai government’s complicated and expensive visa and immigration policies have forced many poor workers to rely on human traffickers in order to enter the country.

Laborers are typically trafficked into Thailand from Myanmar, Burma and Cambodia by coyotes (human traffickers), who lure them there with false promises. Boys as young as 16 can be bought for $600 by fishing companies to work on their boats for up to 20 hours a day with little to no compensation. Such easy access to cheap labor has resulted in barbaric practices on fishing trawlers, including the maiming and murder of these foreign slaves.

A UN report found that up to 59 percent of escaped slaves admit to witnessing at least one murder of another worker at the hands of senior crewman. One former slave testified to the EJF that, “The senior crew attacked workers with knives. And some got killed and their bodies were thrown into the sea.”

These abuses have been allowed to continue for the most part because they take place in international waters, where no country has jurisdiction. Unregistered “ghost boats” take the forced laborers out to sea, and there the crew commits terrible acts against them. Reports of stabbing, crippling, and tossing people alive into the ocean have all been made over the past few years. These crews have been allowed to get away with their crimes because ghost boats rarely ever enter port. Instead, they take their slave-caught seafood to “mother ships,” that then bring the fish into port to sell to brokers.

For the past four years, Thailand has consistently ranked in the second-tier of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report. The report, which is based on a three-tier scale, rates nations around the world based on their human trafficking statistics. Thailand has only avoided the worst rating because they have continued to be pardoned by Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. This year, Thailand used up its last pardon, and if they do not make noticeable improvements in handling their human trafficking stats, the United States will be legally obligated to begin implementing targeted sanctions against them. President Obama has already voiced his support for cracking down on these practices.

This means that the Thai government must spend the next 12 months conducting enough raids and arrests to prove their sincerity and commitment to ending human trafficking in their country. Over the past few years they have made modest steps towards that goal. The government increased police training, created greater potential sentences for convicted traffickers and have constructed more shelters for refugees. These efforts have made little impact on the Thai slave trade, however, mainly because they are not targeted at the true perpetrators.

Human trafficking in Thailand has continued to be facilitated by corruption and an unwillingness to prosecute the companies and brokers profiting from the sale of human beings. The Thai navy’s efforts to monitor the fishing fleet have been negligible at best, and without pressure from the government, the issue is not going to improve. With the threat of international sanctions looming over them, maybe 2013 will be the year that Thailand begins cracking down on human trafficking in the fishing industry- but if the past is any indication, it is not likely.

– Allana Welch

Sources: Al Jazeera, International Business Times, Marine Link, Global Post, Environmental Justice Foundation

Photo: The Asia Foundation