Connect to share and comment

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.


Desperate life at sea

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

the club shattered my wrist.”

For the next six weeks, Pich sorted fish with his one good hand.

There is a code of honor, according to veteran Thai crewmen, that obliges Thais to shelter fellow Thais who fall into the hands of an abusive captain. It does not extend to the trafficked underclass.

“So they thought they were going to work in a factory or construction yard and now they’re on a boat,” Jord said. “So what?”

The push factors

In the 1980s, Thailand’s deep-sea fishing trade easily filled its needs with job-seeking Thais. But a reduction in national poverty through the 1990s and 2000s helped offer better options than life spent on a filthy trawler far from home.

The labor shortage now plagues Thailand’s deep-sea fishing industry, with up to 70,000 unfilled jobs, according to the Bangkok-based Mirror Foundation, which studies human trafficking.

Financial pressures compel captains to find free labor. Fuel accounts for 40 to 60 percent of a boat’s costs, according to Thailand’s Department of Fisheries, and global price hikes have gnawed at captains’ margins.

Overfishing in Thai waters and beyond has forced crews to work longer and harder for a smaller haul of high-value catch: bream, mackerel, squid, scad, anchovies and more.

“You’re in constant need of workers,” said Ad, a deputy trawler captain with the muscular frame of a Muay Thai fighter. “Just show up to the pier looking for a job and we’ll drag you aboard.”

According to Mirror Foundation investigations, labor demand has fishing syndicates resorting to abduction: press-ganging men at gunpoint, spiking their drinks in karaoke dives or, in one case, subduing two teenage brothers with chloroform rags at urinals at Bangkok’s bustling Mor Chit bus station.

But the preferred method relies on foreign coyotes. Thailand is flanked by Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cambodia, among Asia’s poorest countries. Many villages across the border are so stark that hope of securing one of Thailand’s toughest jobs — in farming or construction — can compel men to believe a broker’s lies.

“In my village, I was making $1.50 per day as a day laborer. They said I’d make $260 per month in a Thai factory,” said Sokha, a 39-year-old former fishing slave from Cambodia's Prey Veng province. “My wife had just given birth to a baby with a heart condition. How could I refuse?”

A broker told Kim Net, an 26-year-old Cambodian trafficked from Kampot province, that he could tend Thai gardens for $195 a month. “I started thinking about all the chickens I could buy with that money,” he said. “The broker lived in my village. I trusted him.”

Another former sea slave, from Myanmar’s hilly Karen state, home to the world’s longest-running civil war, said his journey began with an older female broker’s promise of factory work.

“My brother and I paid her $290 to smuggle us over,” said the 22-year-old, who calls himself Sanh. “We walked through the jungle for one week, hiking at night and working in villages by day to get food. We eventually reached a pick-up truck waiting for us on the other side.”

Crooked brokers either demand cash for job placement up front or offer a “work now, pay later” arrangement. The end result is the same: indentured servitude. After being sold, a slave’s debt is transferred to a captain, who is free to demand an outrageous freedom price that a captive can never pay off.

“On police raids, we’ve found notebooks filled with victims’ names, the amount paid for each guy and how much he owes,” said Punnaphot Khamenketkarn, a caseworker under Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

“They even keep lists of who escaped and who’s been captured,” he said. “If you escape and you’re caught, your debt doubles. Do it again and it triples. It’s a losing game. Even if you never try to escape, you can never really pay off your debt.”

Almost every ex-slave interviewed by GlobalPost first realized they’d been duped once traffickers locked them in a Thailand safe house filled with fellow captives. This is where men wait to be sold like livestock. The rooms, they said, are padlocked from the outside and guarded at all hours.

“There were three guards with knives. Two guys and a girl,” Net said. “They’d always smoke yama [methamphetamine] through