Slaves of the Sea

AUSTmagLOGOKyaw-Kyaw grimaces as he explains how he was effectively sold, like a spare bit of machinery, to a Thai trawler captain. And from then, he says, his life slid into a nightmare of beatings, amphetamines, perpetually interrupted sleep, and casual death.

Originally from Burma, Kyaw-Kyaw is 25 years old, and he can’t read or write. When he was 15 he ran from the incessant battles and relentless poverty of eastern Burma’s Karen state, and wound up in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, where he earned a bare living tending water buffalo.

About a year ago a broker arrived in his village, offering work, and a tempting, up-front inducement. “The broker told me I would have a good job, and he gave me 8,000 baht cash,” Kyaw-Kyaw says. “I asked him (the nature of the work) but he didn’t answer. I don’t know why I did it. He said I would earn 5,000 baht  a month.” The broker took him south to the coast and directly to the Thai trawler – which is where he first learned he would be working at sea. “He sold me straight to the fishing boat,” Kyaw-Kyaw says with some bitterness.

The world spends millions of dollars a year on wild-caught fish from Thailand, where the industry is fed by thousands of boats, of varying sizes and varying degrees of shabbiness, and by the huge crowds of young men who work on them. Mostly migrant Burmese, with some Cambodians and a smaller proportion of Laotians and Thais, most of them endure appalling conditions at sea for little pay. Imprisoned by the vast blue of the world’s oceans, many are routinely ‘sold’ by brokers, or by one captain to another. They tell of spending months at sea without seeing land, taking amphetamines to keep working, stitching up their own wounds, trying to understand instructions in another language, enduring assaults without recourse. They have been described as the slaves of the modern age.

The FAO’s 2009 ‘National Fishery Sector Overview’ for Thailand estimated that in 2007 the marine catch was worth 63 billion baht. According to Thailand’s customs department, last year Thailand sold nearly 142 million baht worth of fresh, frozen, chilled, dried, salted and smoked fish to Australia. This total excludes live fish, fish processed into animal food or other products unfit for human consumption, and a large quantity of canned fish – most, although not all, of the cans’ contents are imported as frozen fish by Thailand for canning and exporting.

Some 60 per cent of the Thai fishing boats’ haul, which included thread-fin bream, Indo-Pacific mackerel, coastal tuna, big-eye snapper, squid, sardines, round scad and anchovies, was from Thai waters, the rest caught by the Thai fleet elsewhere around the world. The FAO report concludes that the fishing sector faces various obstacles, including “persistent difficulties in recruiting the crews”, and problems arising from poaching. “Thai fishing vessels are frequently seized by neighbouring coastal states,” it notes drily, “and skippers accused of illegal fishing and/or unlawful intrusion in the EEZ of the country concerned.”

In 2006, according to figures quoted by the UN, there were 12,552 registered fishing vessels in Thailand, employing tens of thousands of workers. The deep-sea boats range for thousands of kilometres, from eastern Indonesian waters all the way to Somalia and Yemen, and many of them stay at sea for months or even years, the crews regularly transferring the catch to a mother ship and receiving supplies of food and water in return. Sometimes these vessels have legal concessions, but according to many reports, they often poach. The captains are nearly always Thai, and they usually carry a pistol to maintain discipline. Stories of casual and never reported deep-sea murder are common. Tales abound of put-upon crew trying to escape: leaping overboard if there is any hope at all, or fleeing into strange and pathless jungles in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Kyaw-Kyaw, with the muscles of hard work bulging under his t-shirt, remembers seeing one of the men on his trawler fall overboard. It seems the man was not a valuable member of the crew, because he was left to drown. “Nobody helped him,” Kyaw-Kyaw says, impassively. “We weren’t so far from shore, maybe about two kilometres. He might be dead or alive; nobody knows what happened to him.”

After eight months of working on the boat, on voyages rarely longer than a fortnight, and after fruitless requests for his wages, Kyaw-Kyaw decided to make a run for it. He asked again for money, this time saying he wanted to go to a karaoke bar, which in Thailand is often a place of drinking and commercial sex. The crew leader, from the Mon people of Thailand and Burma, grumbled, but finally gave him 3,000 baht. Kyaw-Kyaw took it and ran. For eight months’ work, often waking up every few hours at night to bring the catch in, he earned a grand total of 11,000 baht, and 8,000 of that was the inducement to travel with the broker. He says he was beaten twice, for seemingly minor infractions. Drug-use was rife on the boat and a tablet of some sort of amphetamine cost 250 baht. He shrugs. Now he has found work as a gardener in Bangkok, and his life is much easier. As well as being unable to read or write, he can’t speak Thai very well, so his options are limited. For the moment he is simply happy to be off the boat.

Aung Thu Ya, president of the Seafarers Union of Burma, says the Thai fishing industry is enmeshed in criminality. Falsified documents, corruption, systematic poaching, assault, forced labour: the billion dollar trade fuels multi-dimensional and multi-faceted evil. “The nature of the industry is like the mafia,” he says in his crowded little office in Bangkok’s Klongtoey port, explaining that the trawlers both steal fish from other countries and steal wages and liberty from the crews. Aung Thu Ya says that according to eyewitnesses and other reports, an estimated 300 to 1,000 men have been murdered on the Thai fleet since 1995.

More deaths are a result of neglect. Aung Thu Ya proffers legal papers connected with the ‘Prapasnavee’ case. In mid-2006, the ‘Prapasnavee’ fleet of six trawlers returned to Mahachai port near Bangkok from a three-year voyage in Indonesian waters. The owners, the Pongsataporn family, had spent months trying and failing to negotiate an extended fishing concession for the boats. The fleet spent the time hiding in Indonesian waters, banned from entering ports, and unable to restock on food and supplies. Finally the captains were ordered to return to Thailand.

Two men had died before the boats left Indonesian waters; during the return voyage an average of three men died each day from malnutrition. The boat captains ordered the bodies dumped overboard. By the time the fleet reached Thailand, 39 men had died, and one died later in hospital. With the help of various aid agencies, the surviving workers both sued the owners and informed the police. The captains fled; the owners denied they were aware of conditions on the boats, and said they did not have the captains’ full names and addresses. No-one has been convicted, Aung Thu Ya says, and only minimal back-pay (10,000 – 40,000 baht for years of work) awarded to those workers who agreed to the owners’ offers. “According to the stories of our fishers, the skippers and officers – they beat, they hit, they kill,” he adds. “So many cases. They torture the fishermen. But the industry is booming, based on fishing industry workers.”

Inland from Mahachai port, in the warren of streets in the town, a few seafarers talk about their lives. Aye is very handsome, with smooth brown skin and bright teeth, and he smiles a lot. He knows, all too well, how much endurance is needed to work on Thai fishing trawlers, but he worries about having his photo taken and his name used. He fears reprisals if he tells his story. It gets worse: the people in charge of the office, where he agrees to meet, don’t even want their organisation named; they, too, mutter about the ‘mafia’ culture of the fishing industry.

Sitting casually on the tiled floor in the office, wearing a tan shirt with epaulettes and casual trousers, Aye talks about the horrors of life at sea. He talks about men who suffer without medicine when they’re ill, who are beaten because they fail to understand instructions in Thai, and of how he once spent as long as two years at sea without seeing land. Aye, now 29, is from Rangoon, and he has been working on the boats for fifteen years. Why does he carry on? He says he doesn’t know how to do anything else, and doesn’t know how to start.

Aye, a Burmese sailor on a Thai fishing boat. Photo Sian Powell.

Aye, a Burmese sailor on a Thai fishing boat. Photo Sian Powell.

Workers like him, with some experience, and some knowledge of the Thai language, he adds, have an easier time at sea. That very evening he planned to catch the bus to Nakhon Si Thammarat, on Thailand’s east coast, opposite Phuket, to board a fishing boat, and earn perhaps 5,000 baht a month, with no need to pay for food or accommodation. “I will go anywhere, if I can earn more money, I will go. I have been married and divorced. My aim and my goal is to earn a lot of money. I want to live like other people.”

After all, he has seen the worst of it now. In 2005 he says he saw a Burmese worker argue first with the boat’s Thai engineer, and then with the Thai captain, he says. The captain, apparently losing his temper, took out a gun and shot the worker, whose body slumped into the sea. Nothing more happened, either to the captain or the witnesses. “I was living at sea for a long time, how could I report it?” Aye asks. “How can we, because we are in the hands of the captain?” He says with no hard evidence it would be meaningless to report such a thing to the Thai police, and laughs at the thought he could have reported it to the Burmese embassy. “We don’t even know where the embassy is.”

Until recently, Anna Engblom worked as a project officer with the International Labour Organisation in Bangkok, which has commissioned research into the exploitation rampant in Thailand’s fishing industry.

“It’s one of the worst sectors for migrant labourers,” Engblom says. “There are very few Thais working as crew. This work is considered so hard and challenging and tough, Thais really don’t want to do it.” Engblom says she has been told by one worker that he spent three years at sea without once setting foot on dry land: the trawler was regularly resupplied at sea, and its catch transferred to a nearby mother ship. Another told her that he saw a troublemaker thrown overboard, his body was later brought up in a net, disentangled and thrown overboard again. “When they see another boat, they just jump,” Engblom says. “They just hope they will be picked up.”

Lured, deceived, threatened: many of these workers are given little choice about signing up, and if they are migrants, legal or otherwise, they are afraid to complain to the Thai authorities. Many of them, Engblom notes, willingly go to sea. But sometimes they think it will only be a short voyage and then find themselves at sea for two years. Others are told the work will be a job in port. Some wake up after a big night carousing and find themselves on board and out of sight of land. Others wake after a big night to be told they owe a karaoke bar thousands of baht and must pay their debt. The Thai navy occasionally stops boats, Engblom says, but there are few prosecutions.

Min, who was trapped on a Thai fishing boat. Photo by Sian Powell.

Min, who was trapped on a Thai fishing boat. Photo by Sian Powell.

Another Burmese worker, who again wants to keep his head down and his name secret, says he has spent 21 years on the boats, frequently on poaching voyages. Originally from Rangoon, Min says he was on one voyage in Indonesian waters that lasted three years. Another time, he and his shipmates were forced to abandon ship when their boat was caught poaching in Burmese waters. They floated in the sea for three days before they were rescued by another trawler. “We had an emergency light, but the boat was confiscated by the Burmese authorities,” he says.

Min, who freely admits he used heroin on board the boats, says trawler work can be almost unendurable for newcomers who have no skills, who have been sold by brokers with no explanation of what is expected of them. Thin and very dark-skinned, he seems weary, and he says his eyes no longer function very well. He may have cataracts; or he may have a more serious illness – but at least on land he can seek treatment. At sea, his health and well-being were a low priority. “If there’s an accident, or if you’re sick, you die,” he says. “Like that.” He says the brokers have no compunction; they transport workers like so much cargo, lock them up in safe houses, promise them different jobs and send them to sea.

Abuse, or slavery? Eaklak Loomchomkhae, chief of the Mirror Foundation’s Anti Human Trafficking Operation Centre, based in Bangkok, believes many of those who work on the fishing fleet are at the enslaved end of the labour arc. The Operation Centre has done a lot of work on the matter, interviewing victims and officials, assisting Thai workers and their families, and compiling a soon-to-be-published research paper.

“Slaves, they are slaves”, Eaklak says, with no doubt in his voice. He says he is not sure of the proportion of fishing crew who are at sea against their will, but he insists it’s a very big and growing problem, fuelled by a chronic labour shortage on the boats. Tackling the mess is hugely difficult, he adds. Many of the boat-owners are linked to politicians, and they have a lot of power. Some in the government do want to clean up the industry, but, he sighs, “it’s a big area, and it’s big money – it’s very difficult”.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, the Thai government’s official spokesman, says the government is working to deal with the problems. “We have national plans to deal with illegal immigrants and there have been several reports generated by the Thai government for the UN,” he explains, adding that if there have been specific complaints about the fishing industry, the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of labour should have records of the cases, and they would be dealt with individually. “We have to look at it on a case by case basis,” he says.

From his relaxed position on the office floor in Mahachai, Aye waxes philosophical. He thinks the idea of cleaning up the industry is great on paper, but doomed in practice, and he says the men who work on Thai boats have almost no recourse. He remembers how he was arrested in the port town of Ranong in 1999 or 2000 because he had no papers and he wasn’t in Thailand legally. He says Thai authorities transported him to an island – he doesn’t know its name – and a Burmese broker arrived to arrange his transfer on to a trawler.

“The broker said, if you work on the fishing boat, you will earn 5,000 baht,” Aye says, laughing at the suggestion he could have refused, and run away. “I would get lost on that island, I would be starving on that island. I had no choice. We had to agree, and after that we had to work out a way of escape. When you try to escape, you have to make sure it’s safe. But if you make the decision, and they catch you, they will kill you.”

He waited until night, when the trawler was some kilometres offshore in the Gulf of Thailand, and jumped overboard wearing only his underpants and clutching a flat piece of polystyrene. He had no money, no passport, no papers. “I could see the lights, but I was so far away. If I jumped during the day I would have been shot. It took hours to get to shore, maybe four to eight. I couldn’t swim that far. I could just float with the currents.”

Eventually he reached land, and wandered around until he found some Burmese who fed him and lent him some clothes. He wound up staying in Chumphon district, a long way south of Bangkok, where he lived for the next three to four years, working casually on boats. Aye believes some official recognition of the industry crisis would help matters. “It would be good if the Thai government set up new laws,” he says. “We lose 90 per cent of our rights.” Anyway, like many of the workers, he is unsure of what he can do at sea, especially if the trawlers are fishing illegally – which is usually the case. “Thailand is a big thief,” he says. “If the boats are caught on radar, they run.”