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Labour abuses in the shrimp industry
Some Burmese migrants have been found to suffer exploitation and abuse whilst working on Thai fishing vessels. Photo: Jim Wickens/Ecostorm
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Special report The slavery behind our seafood

Jim Wickens

20th September, 2012

Burmese migrants working onboard Thai fishing boats suffer brutal exploitation. And the boats involved supply so-called 'trash fish' for use in feed given to farmed prawns exported globally. The Ecologist Film Unit's Jim Wickens reports

It is a dark and dingy motel on the Burmese border. We are thousands of miles from the UK high street, but the food we consume in Britain is linked to the voices that are we about to hear. Ushered through the rain, coats over heads and moving through the shadows, the figures enter our room. They are Burmese fishermen, and they are risking their lives to talk to us as part of the film Grinding Nemo.

Thailand's fishing industry, one of the largest in the world, is worth in excess of $4 billion each year. Much of the fish caught at sea is frozen, exported and consumed around the world, whilst some vessels catch so-called 'trash fish' which is turned into fish meal used to feed prawns which are in turn exported to supermarkets in the UK and elsewhere.

Most of the fishermen onboard the vessels are Burmese. According to Human Rights Watch up to 250 000 Burmese migrants may work within the Thai fishing industry, with little or no rights at all. An invisible work force that, experts claim, are being brutally exploited to toil onboard Thai fishing fleets.

Like many before him, Wai Yan fled Burma in search of a better life. At the age of 16 he was recruited onto a Thai fishing boat, beckoned by the promise of high wages. But once onboard the vessel, it would be two years before he was to see land again.

'Everytime I saw the mother ship come, I would cry because I wanted to go home. But I couldn’t because they wouldn't let me,' he told the Ecologist.

Taken to fish hundreds of miles out at sea in the Indian ocean, he was continually trafficked between vessels, his only contact with the outside world a supply boat that would bring food and fuel and carry the fish back to Thai ports.

Malnutrition & killings

'In those years I got to sleep around 4 hours each day. The captain would carry a gun with him all the time so we didn't dare to say no to him. It was a very hard life, I got skinny and weak from malnutrition. I got seasick all the time, I had to work as much as they wanted me too. I often had a suicidal though during those time. The only reason that I was be able to come back is because the boat start to leak. I didn’t have any mobile phone, no way of communication. All I knew and saw was the sea itself.'

'But we didn’t dare to claim our salary,' he says. 'One of my friend said have you seen all of these anonymous dead body floating around near by the port? Those are the people that complain.'

Wai Yan is not alone. Fellow Burmese migrant Nyan described typical working conditions: 'When working, we invest our whole life, we are in their hands and there is nothing we can do about it. when given orders we have to follow..we have to eat when they say, sleep when they say. There absolutely no excuse for anything. It's really bad. When I made mistakes sorting the fish, they would hit me with a metal stick. They even tried to shoot me,' Nyan says.

Working undercover, the Ecologist managed to gain access to several trawlers fishing offshore. We were shown typical tiny living quarters consisting of crudely-slatted boards for sleeping set under waist-high ceilings, bare but for a few items of clothing, rusty knives and the fitted ship horns ready to wake the crew for the round-the-clock toil of sorting the catches.

We were told of captains force-feeding amphetamines to half-starved crew members, the routine killing of crew who complain, and Burmese migrants leaping from the backs of vessels in suicidal bids to escape the torment of life at sea.

One man we spoke to described a killing he witnessed: 'The captain took his gun and shot him until he fell off the boat. He fell in the gap between the two boats. he didn't die right away, he tried to come up, but the captain just gave him another shot until he sank away..I've seen this happen twice', he said.

The supermarket link

Thai fishing fleets trawl the rich coastline areas of the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman sea. During this investigation crew members in some of the largest ports told the Ecologist how the fleets routinely fish illegally in the waters of other countries, most commonly in Burma and Malaysia, but also as far as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and even Australia.

Out of sight and out of mind, illegal, unregulated and untraceable fishing fleets often use destructive fishing gear to wreak havoc on the marine ecosystems across South East Asia in the lucrative hunt for ever more fish and 'trash fish' destined for feedstuffs that is ultimately linked to western supermarket shelves.

Alongside the concern over illegal fishing, there is an equally challenging task for fish suppliers and governments who want to make the food we eat more sustainable.

'Labour conditions in the fishing industry represents the next big challenge to organisations that want seafood to be sustainable and ethical. There are numerous instances of appalling labor conditions on fishing boats - in both developed and developing countries - and yet none of the current certification schemes address this problem', says Blake Lee Harwood from the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, an organisation which works closely with the retail industry trying to improve the sustainability of fishing practices around the world.

Bur campaigners claim that efforts by NGOs and retailers have so far only really focused on the processing plants rather than what is happening out at sea. Until this final hurdle is addressed, they claim, the fate of the thousands of Burmese migrants currently at sea continues to hang in the balance.

The names of the Burmese fishermen interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identity

Jim Wickens is a reporter/producer with the Ecologist Film Unit

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