16 sparks 1 The slaves who live and die on Thailands fishing boats

You could, with justification, call it hell on earth.

But this poisonous practice takes place far from land, on the tepid seas of South East Asia. It is called slavery and it has not gone away. In fact, there are thousands of slaves currently working and dying on Thai fishing boats.

If that sounds shocking, let me tell you how it works: men from impoverished communities in Cambodia and Burma depart for Thailand every year, looking for work in factories, plantations or the fields. The experts call them “irregular migrants” – men without passports or proper papers, willing to travel great distances in order to provide for their families at home.

Unscrupulous brokers and human traffickers meet them at the border and offer what sounds like an unbeatable deal – a route into Thailand and a job once they get there. However, it is a well-worked trick.

In reality, these unlucky men have been are sold, for a couple of hundred dollars each, to the owners of Thai fishing boats. Typically, the lie is revealed as the boat leaves the shore and the coastline fades from view.

Seafood is big business in Thailand – it’s now the third largest exporter in the world, supplying supermarkets in Europe and America. But the fishing fleet is chronically short of crew – by the government’s own estimation 50,000 additional labourers are required.

These modern-day slaves help make up the difference and unsurprisingly, boat owners give little thought to conditions on board. Captives work 20-hour days with little food or fresh water and they are beaten if they resist.

Injuries go untreated and those unable to work are often thrown overboard.

We know an increasing amount about the brutal situation on these vessels because of the work done by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and American film-maker Alex Willson, who have interviewed dozens of former captives about their experiences on the slave ships.

A young man called Amusa for example, was forced to spend seven years on a fishing boat and thought he would die at sea. “When we did something wrong they beat us until we lost consciousness,” he said.

“If you compete with them or fight with them they will kill and throw you in the water.” Another fisherman, Vorn, was held for nine years. “There were 30 people working on the boat and we worked without food or sleep. Even when we were sick, we couldn’t relax or sleep. We had to work.”

Still, captives have found a variety of ways to escape – like swimming great distances to shore – and there are a number of charities and other groups who stand ready to assist them.

16 sparks 2 The slaves who live and die on Thailands fishing boats

The IOM has helped rescue 324 Cambodians over the last few years and you can see and hear more from some of these reluctant fishermen in our special report.

If you are wondering what the government of Thailand is doing about all this, they have proposed a series of measures including an official registration system for potential workers and employers, although little concrete action has been taken.

What Thai diplomats did do however, was try to block to the publication of Alex Willson’s interviews on the internet in an attempt to save the nation from being tarred with the noxious brush of slavery.

Their efforts have failed however, and we should all be glad because these unfortunate men speak for thousands and thousands of others.

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