3/25/15, "Your seafood might come from slaves," AP, Benjina, Indonesia, via NY Post
"The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical
island thousands of miles from home.
Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with
slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major
supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.
Here, in the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding
waters, hundreds of trapped men represent one of the most desperate
links criss-crossing between companies and countries in the seafood
industry. This intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat
from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Your seafood may
come from slaves.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Associated Press notified the International
Organization for Migration about men in this story, who were then moved
out of Benjina by police for their safety. Hundreds of slaves remain on
the island, and five other men were in the cage this week.
The men the Associated Press spoke to on Benjina were mostly from
Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world.
They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish.
Their catch was shipped back to Thailand, and then entered the global
Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America’s
major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the
nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor,
Sysco. It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most
popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and
Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as
imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen
snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.
In a year-long investigation, the AP interviewed more than 40 current
and former slaves in Benjina.
The AP documented the journey of a single
large shipment of slave-caught seafood from the Indonesian village,
including squid, snapper, grouper and shrimp, and tracked it by
satellite to a gritty Thai harbor. Upon its arrival, AP journalists
followed trucks that loaded and drove the seafood over four nights to
dozens of factories, cold storage plants and the country’s biggest fish
Some fishermen, risking their lives, begged the reporters for help.
“I want to go home. We all do,” one Burmese slave called out over the
side of his boat, a cry repeated by many men. “Our parents haven’t
heard from us for a long time, I’m sure they think we are dead.”
Their catch mixes in with other fish at numerous sites in Thailand,
including processing plants. US Customs records show that several of
those Thai factories ship to America. They also ship to Europe and Asia,
but the AP traced shipments to the US, where trade records are public.
The major corporations identified by AP declined interviews but
issued statements that strongly condemned labor abuses; many described
their work with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.
National Fisheries Institute spokesman Gavin Gibbons, speaking on
behalf of 300 US seafood firms that make up 75 percent of the industry,
said his members are troubled by the findings.
“It’s not only disturbing, it’s disheartening because our companies
have zero tolerance for labor abuses,” he said. “These type of things
flourish in the shadows.”
The slaves interviewed by the AP described 20- to 22-hour shifts and
unclean drinking water. Almost all said they were kicked, beaten or
whipped with toxic stingray tails if they complained or tried to rest.
They were paid little or nothing.
Runaway Hlaing Min said many died at sea.
“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should
remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea,” he said.
“The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”
The small harbor in the village is occupied by Pusaka Benjina
Resources, whose five-story office compound includes the cage with the
slaves. The company is the only fishing operation on Benjina officially
registered in Indonesia, and is listed as the owner of more than 90
trawlers. However, the captains are Thai, and the Indonesian government
is reviewing to see if the boats are really Thai-owned. Pusaka Benjina
did not respond to phone calls and a letter, and did not speak to a
reporter who waited for two hours in the company’s Jakarta office.
At the Benjina port, the AP interviewed slaves from a dozen fishing
vessels offloading their catch into a large refrigerated cargo ship, the
Silver Sea Line.
The ship belonged to the Silver Sea Reefer Co., which is registered
in Thailand and has at least nine refrigerated cargo boats. The company
said it is not involved with the fishermen.
“We only carry the shipment and we are hired in general by clients,”
said company owner Panya Luangsomboon. “We’re separated from the fishing
The AP followed that ship, using satellite tracking over 15 days to
Samut Sakhon, Thailand, and journalists watched as workers packed the
seafood over four nights onto more than 150 trucks, following deliveries
to factories around the city.
Inside those plants, representatives told AP journalists that they
sold seafood to other Thai processors and distributors. US Customs bills
of lading identify specific shipments from those plants to American
firms, including well-known brand names.
For example, one truck bore the name and bird logo of Kingfisher
Holdings Ltd., which supplies frozen and canned seafood around the
world. Another truck went to Mahachai Marine Foods Co., a cold storage
business that also supplies Kingfisher, according to Kawin Ngernanek,
whose family runs it.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” said Kawin, who also serves as spokesman for
the Thai Overseas Fisheries Association. “Kingfisher buys several types
When later asked about abusive labor practices, Kawin was not
available. Instead, Mahachai Marine Foods manager Narongdet Prasertsri
responded: “I have no idea about it at all.” Kingfisher did not answer
repeated requests for comment.
Every month, Kingfisher and its subsidiary KF Foods Ltd. send about
100 metric tons of seafood from Thailand to America, according to US
Customs records. These shipments have gone to Stavis Seafoods, a
Boston-based Sysco supplier, and other distributors.
“The truth is, these are the kind of things that keep you up at
night,” said CEO Richard Stavis, who grandfather started the company. He
said his business visits international processors, requires notarized
certification of legal practices and uses third-party audits.
“There are companies like ours that care and are working as hard as they can,” he said.
A similar pattern repeats itself with other companies and shipments.
The AP followed another truck to Niwat Co., where part owner Prasert
Luangsomboon said the company sells to Thai Union Manufacturing. Weeks
later, when confronted about forced labor in their supply chain, Niwat
referred several requests for comment to Luangsomboon, who could not be
reached for further comment.
Thai Union Manufacturing Co. is a subsidiary of Thai Union Frozen
Products PCL, Thailand’s largest seafood corporation, with $3.5 billion
in annual sales. This parent company, known simply as Thai Union, owns
Chicken of the Sea and is buying Bumble Bee, although the AP did not
observe any tuna fisheries.
Thai Union says its direct clients include Wal-Mart, and ships
thousands of cans of cat food to the US every month, including household
brands like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. These end up on shelves of
major grocery chains, such as Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons, as well as
pet stores. Again, however, it’s impossible to tell if a particular can
of cat food might have slave-caught seafood.
After the AP’s story was released Wednesday, the company issued a
statement saying it had immediately terminated business ties with a
supplier after determining it might be involved with forced labor and
other abuses. It did not say which supplier.
“Thai Union embraces AP’s finding. It is utterly unacceptable,” it
said. “This is to prove that Thai Union takes the issue of human rights
violation extremely seriously.”
Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who has been cracking
down on illegal foreign vessels, including those from Thailand, vowed
to take swift action.
She tweeted the AP’s report and distributed copies of it in a meeting
to a wide range of high-ranking government officials, including police,
a high court judge, a prosecutor, the navy and customs.
“I’m not going to tolerate such a thing to continue happening in our
waters,” she said in an interview. She added that campaigns to save
wildlife get far more attention than abuse involving humans at sea.
Illegal fishing is “killing people and nobody knows or cares about this for so long,” she said.
The enslaved fishermen on Benjina had no idea where the fish they
caught was sold, only that it was too valuable for them to eat. Their
desperation was palpable.
A crude cemetery holds more than 60 graves strangled by tall grasses
and jungle vines. The small wooden markers are neatly labeled, some with
the falsified names of slaves and boats. Only their friends remember
where they were laid to rest.
In the past, former slave Hla Phyo said, supervisors on ships simply
tossed bodies into the sea to be devoured by sharks. But after
authorities and companies started demanding that every man on the roster
be accounted for upon return, captains began stowing corpses alongside
the fish in ship freezers until they arrived back in Benjina.
“I’m starting to feel like I will be in Indonesia forever,” said
Phyo, wiping a tear away. “I remember thinking when I was digging, the
only thing that awaits us here is death.”"
Top image of slaves in cage by ap.
Second image caption: "A security guard talks to detainees. The slaves said they were kicked,
beaten or whipped with toxic stingray tails if they complained or tried
to rest, and that many died at sea." ap photo
2014 Time report on child fishermen slaves:
3/5/2014, "Child Slaves May Have Caught the Fish in Your Freezer," Time, Charlie Campbell
the third largest seafood exporter in the world, but much of the tuna,
sardines, shrimp and squid it exports has been caught by victims of
After two years toiling without pay on a Thai fishing boat, Sai Ko Ko
fell ill. “[The captain] verbally abused me but I was so sick I couldn’t
work,” recalls the 21-year-old. “He knocked me down, dragged me and
threw me into the sea.”
Luckily, Sai Ko Ko was rescued by another vessel and ended up in an
Indonesian immigration center.
But countless other illegal Burmese
migrants like him fair much worse. Many are mere children forced to
endure slave-like conditions. And, shockingly, the fruits of their
anguish continue to be unwittingly enjoyed by families across the U.S.,
Europe and elsewhere.
is the third largest seafood exporter in the world. The sector was
worth some $7.3 billion dollars in 2011, and around a fifth of the catch
ends up on American dinner tables — particularly tuna, sardines, shrimp
and squid. But the industry heavily relies on trafficked and forced
labor on unlicensed vessels. Victims typically hail from Cambodia, Laos
and, most commonly, Burma. Beatings and starvation are commonplace.
On Tuesday, the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) released a report detailing Sai Ko Ko’s plight and that of tens of thousands like him. Slavery at Sea
calls on the Thai government, international community and consumers to
demand “net to plate” traceability on all seafood products.
“Migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry, many of them
trafficked illegally, are suffering terrible abuses and all too often
are denied their basic human rights,” said EJF executive director Steve
Trent, blaming endemic corruption, poor enforcement, inadequate victim
support, unacceptable working conditions and deficient migration policy.
Much has been made of recent reforms in Burma, officially known as
Myanmar, as the former pariah state transforms into a quasi-democracy
following a half-century of brutal junta rule. But for many on the
ground, especially myriad ethnic minorities, precious little has
changed. Most of the 55-million population subsists on less than a
dollar a day, and three quarters don’t have electricity. Promises of
well-paid jobs in neighboring nations continue to entice.
Around three million Burmese migrants currently live in Thailand.
(When in May 2012 Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi made her first trip
abroad for 24 years, she tellingly visited
compatriots in Mahachai, a commercial fishing hub 20 miles south of
Bangkok known as “Little Burma.”) Many would-be migrants, not possessing
valid documentation, pay brokers several hundred dollars to arrange
their passage over the border, with the promise of well-paying jobs upon
In reality, vulnerable individuals are sold to fishing boat captains
for a huge profit, and must then work off several thousand dollars of
“debt.” Thai immigration and law enforcement officials are often
complicit in these deals. Prosecution of perpetrators is rare. Many
migrants get sold from boat to boat and don’t see land for years,
sleeping in the open and forced to take bizarre amphetamine cocktails to
stay awake for days on end. Due to dangerous conditions and tortuously
long hours, work-related injuries are commonplace, and many throw
themselves overboard to their deaths as their only means of escape.
Even for young slaves who are rescued, there is no end to the
nightmare. Aye Ko Ko, 17, was among 14 people rescued from a fishing
boat last March only to spend the next year at a detention center. “No
one helps us,” he told EJF in January. “No organizations come to see us,
like they did before. Some people are tired of it all and just want to
The Thai government says it is working on the issue. Thai Labor
Ministry Deputy Permanent Secretary Boontharik Samiti told Associated
Press that “all agencies have collectively come together in an effort to
prevent this problem in a sustainable and long-term fashion.” But lack
of progress in human trafficking has been noticed by the U.S State
Department, which produces the annual Trafficking in Persons Report,
and this year will likely move Thailand to the worst of four
categories. Restrictions on fish imports could follow as a consequence.
Andy Hall, a migrant labor expert based in Thailand and Burma, tells
TIME that consumers hold the key. “People are still buying the fish from
Thailand so there’s no really an incentive to get serious about this
issue,” he says, adding that the enforcement resources available to the
Thai authorities are “miniscule
compared to the size of the problem.”
Hall highlights how pressure by Finnish retailers has led to a boycott
in Thai pineapple products after similar abuses were highlighted. “We
don’t see that kind of pressure in other parts of Europe, and especially
not in the U.S,” he says. “Your average consumer in the West doesn’t
have so much interest in where their products are coming from.” Human
traffickers count on that apathy."
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