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For Americans, the calculation is worrisome. Thailand is the United States’ second-largest supplier of foreign seafood. Of America's total seafood imports, one out of every six pounds comes from the Southeast Asian nation. The accounts of ex-slaves, Thai fishing syndicates, officials, exporters and anti-trafficking case workers, gathered by GlobalPost in a three-month investigation, illuminate an opaque offshore supply chain enmeshed in slavery.

Seaslaves trawler
Trawler. (GlobalPost)

Desperate life at sea

The years grind away at young lives. Some slaves don't step on land for a full six years.

SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand and PREY VENG, Cambodia — To hear Jord tell it, a deep-sea boatman’s life is one long knife fight. His nastiest scar starts above his eyes. It runs straight to his crown in a pink groove, the outcome of a man’s attempt to split his skull like a melon.

Other limbs of the 40-year-old Thai boat mechanic haven’t fared much better. A quarter-sized chunk of shin meat was sheared from his right leg. His back is pitted with hack marks. But a snarling boar, tattooed in jagged lines into his bicep, suggests that his enemies got the worst of it.

Jord tapped its inky snout and read aloud the lettering underneath. “I always win,” said the squat, sun-leathered fisherman in a high rasp.

Deep-sea Thai fishing trawlers offer a study of rough men in the absence of law. “You have a problem with someone, you take them down on the spot,” said Jord, whiling away a Friday afternoon in a port city flophouse with his crew mates. “You make sure he can’t come for you later.”

The gang’s five days of shore leave — a blur of booze and karaoke girls — would take place in Samut Sakhon, the Thai fishing trade’s industrial hub. They had planted themselves in the city’s skid row, a rubbly lane behind an abandoned cinema. Even on shore, they stuck close to their fraternal crew. These clans, like prison gangs, offer a measure of protection against rivals.

Along nearby railroad tracks, children fetch booze, cigarettes and ice buckets for men with bloodshot eyes. Rouge-caked girls in neon skirts slink in and out of back rooms. Sex here sells for $8.50. A bottle of Blend 285 whiskey, the rotgut of choice, sells for $5. And laborers from Cambodia or Myanmar, whom the likes of Jord lord over, go for about $600 a head.

That is the price paid to smugglers, who guide droves of desperate men from Thailand’s neighboring countries to padlocked rooms by the shore. Far too often, the laborers themselves receive nothing.

Once purchased by a Thai fishing syndicate, captains can choose to pay them fairly, enslave them for years or, if they please, dispose of them later like worn-out chattel.

“Years ago, I saw an entire foreign crew shot dead,” said Da, a 38-year-old Thai crewman who has worked the seas since 18. “There were 14 of them. They’d been out to sea for five years straight without compensation. The boss didn’t want to pay up, so he lined them up on the side of the boat and shot them one by one.”

Twelve bodies dropped into the sea, Da said; two slumped forward, and bled out on the deck. “I was ordered to dump them into the water,” he said, “and clean up the mess.”

On land, Thai long-haul fishermen tend to occupy society’s lower rungs. “A lot of guys run to the sea to escape the law,” Jord said. But on the open sea, these misfits occupy the higher caste. Their inferiors, trafficked migrants, are compelled to make themselves useful or else.

Murder is obscenely common. Of the seven ex-slaves interviewed by GlobalPost in Thailand and Cambodia, four had witnessed a killing aboard a Thai trawler. So did nearly 60 percent of a 49-man set of rescued captives profiled by a UN anti-trafficking team in 2009.

“I once saw a captain grab a metal spike used to mend nets and stab a fisherman in the chest,” said Moeun Pich, 32, a former sea slave from Cambodia’s central Kampong Thom province. “The crew pulled a sleeping bag over his corpse and rolled it overboard.”

While held captive aboard Thai-run fishing boats, 32-year-old Cambodian Moeun Pich was worked 20 hours per day for zero pay. He witnessed the murder of a fellow fisherman whose corpse was dumped into the sea. (Patrick Winn/Global Post)

Pich was nearly a casualty himself. Just one month into his captivity, the captain and crew boss grew exasperated at his poor fishing know-how.

“One pointed a gun to my head. The other bashed my head with a club,” he said. “When I held up my hands to block the blows,