The ocean’s culinary delights look pristine on our tables: peeled, processed and sterile. Now Western consumers are getting a taste of the human drudgery in the dregs of the supply chain.
News reports have surfaced of enslavement in the fisheries of Thailand. Men have reportedly been forced to work at boats for as many as twenty hours a day; disciplined with beatings, sometimes murders; often physically held captive on boats and at ports; and further preyed upon by usurious debts. The industry employs an estimated 650,000, with roughly 270,000 migrants on Thai fishing boats. Many have been trafficked from two poorer, less stable neighbors, Myanmar and Cambodia. Despite widespread reports of abuse and forced labor, regulatory bodies are weak and riddled with corruption, and we may never know how many have been subjected to this ferocious exploitation in order to keep our freezers stocked.
In a study by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which documented extraordinary brutality on the fishing vessels, a trafficking survivor described the mechanics of modern-day captivity at sea:
“We had no choice. There was nowhere to flee; we were surrounded by the sea. After we arrived back to the shore, we were locked inside the room guarded by their men; there were too many of them. So the workers had to take one trip after another, without having a choice.”
The processing of human beings begins on shore with debt bondage, as EJF explains, “Many migrant fishers are sold to boat owners for what is known as ka hua, the price paid which the worker must pay off before receiving any wages. This can leave many fishers working for months or even years without pay.”
Their status as a commodity in a complex global trade leaves them variously disenfranchised: they’re simultaneously trapped in primitive conditions, yet their labor is governed by a fast-moving, technology-driven market run by “first world” monopolies.
Thailand’s $7.3 billion fishing-export industry is major international market, yielding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of seafood each year. But it’s also rife with illegal and environmentally destructive fishing practices, which have severely depleted fish stocks and undermined the oceanic ecosystem as well as the fishing economy. The whole regional industry embodies the kind of neoliberal profiteering embedded in the global seafood industry (one study estimates that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imports to the United States is illegally traded).
Migrant workers from Myanmar work on a fishing boat before sailing out of the port of Mahachai. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)