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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.


Motherships in the abyss

In the wild-caught seafood industry, forced labor persists because the first crucial supply-chain steps take place in a lawless, saltwater abyss.


“If you take your gloves off in there, your fingernails will turn green and fall out,” said Da, a 38-year-old Thai boatman. “If you took your suit off, you’d die."

Such extreme temperatures keep fish unspoiled for their onshore recipient, the fishmongering Yi Bua. This job title, a loanword from Southeast Asia’s ethnic Chinese merchant class, roughly translates as “middleman.” They are paid to serve as a conduit between the syndicates that catch fish and the processing plant.

“The big businesses need fish and the Yi Bua has them. They’re skilled negotiators just like any broker selling real estate or cars,” said Sompong Sakaew of the Labor Rights Promotion Network. “It’s considered a good job. If a big fish costs $2, he’ll charge the factory $2.10.”

Any hope of distinguishing slave-caught fish from the rest evaporates with the Yi Bua, who intermingle fish from many different boats.

“The Yi Bua are businessmen. It’s not their job to ask questions about conditions on the boat,” Piyakrai said. “The big company he’s contracted under can stress that he shouldn’t buy from ghost ships. But no one really knows how they were caught out there on the ocean. Not even the Yi Bua.”

Infamous industry

Last August, at the government’s invitation, a UN special rapporteur arrived in Thailand to scrutinize the country’s struggle against human trafficking. The assessment of their guest, a Nigerian human rights lawyer named Joy Ezeilo, was blunt. By diplomatic standards, it was eviscerating.

Captivity on fishing vessels, Ezeilo said, has become “notoriously common.”

She laid the blame not just on criminals but on the government itself. Anti-trafficking laws, she said, are “weak and fragmented” and “hampered by deep-rooted corruption, especially among the low-cadre law enforcement officers at provincial and local levels.”

Awkwardness peaked when Ezeilo, at a gathering inside the government’s own ministerial chambers, asked all Thai bureaucrats to clear the room so she could speak privately with NGOs, said Chutintorn Gongsakdi, a deputy director general with Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“There’s an inherent mistrust,” he said. “She doesn’t trust any government data. But that means, from our point of view, that the data she trusts isn’t government data. It makes us a bit frustrated. Some of this evidence is hearsay.”

Thai bureaucrats, Chutintorn said, want export partners to gently encourage the fight against Thailand’s forced labor woes. Instead, in the eyes of some officials, the bigger partner rubs Thailand’s nose in it.

Though the UN’s critique is tough, it does not pose the economic threat wielded by the US State Department’s three-tier “Trafficking in Persons” ranking. Thailand currently occupies the “tier two watch list,” a next-to-last grade shared with Afghanistan and Angola.

Washington may decide that Thai anti-trafficking efforts this year are on the upswing. But if it doesn’t — a strong possibility — Thailand will be knocked down to tier three in the company of Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

By law, that ranking will force President Barack Obama to consider aid sanctions against Thailand, one of America’s oldest Asian allies. The new report is due this summer and Thai diplomats, Chutintorn said, are anxiously awaiting the verdict.

“Seriously,” Chutintorn said, “this alienates friends, OK? If we’re ranked in tier three, we consider that unjustified. It will make my colleagues lose heart. I’ve seen it. They just want to change their jobs. In Asia, maybe we’re not strong. We need some encouragement. We’re soft-hearted people.”

Slipping through the cracks

The problem is not Thailand’s law which, under a 2008 overhaul, now threatens traffickers with harsh prison terms. The problem, according to anti-trafficking experts, is that so few offenders are pursued and punished.

In all of 2010, authorities pursued fewer than one dozen alleged forced labor violations, according to the US State Department. The most high-profile case so far dates back to 2006, when a Thai fishing syndicate set 77 men adrift with no food, water or fuel near Indonesian waters, in lieu of paying their salaries. They drifted for months. Half died. The 38 who survived were, by court decree, awarded $4,170 per person from the boat’s owner.

Police raids into safe houses filled with boat-bound captives remain infrequent. “It’s kicking in doors and finding 10, 12, 15 guys,” Rende Taylor said. “Again, we’re talking about a problem in the thousands.” Spot-check inspections of potential ghost ships are, in the US trafficking report’s estimation, “practically nonexistent.”

Were police to rescue more seafood slaves, they would have food to eat and a place to stay. In recent years, the Thai government built four shelters for male forced labor victims. Half are located in bustling port areas prone to sea slavery: Songkhla and Ranong. But none are filled to capacity.

The accounts of former captives portray local police as vultures, not liberators. “The Thai government must address the fact that most Thai police at local and provincial levels are predators of migrants,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“Let me use that word clearly,” Robertson said. “Predators. Who will extort and abuse migrants. If a migrant goes to make a report at the local police station, they will not be listened to and, in fact, will likely be arrested.”

American seafood importers can only do so much to compensate for Thai police apathy, said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, America's chief seafood trade organization and lobbying group based outside Washington D.C. The institute urges all seafood corporations to hire outside inspectors. In 2008, when an International Labor Organization-funded report alleged forced labor in Thailand's shrimp trade, the group pushed for a thorough investigation, he said. "Our members," Gibbons said, "have no interest in sourcing seafood from companies that use illegal and exploitative labor practices."

The institute has considered whether "dockside audits" could help spot abuses in Thailand. But monitoring the open seas, Gibbons said, is far more challenging than investigating shrimp farms and factories. "When we see companies named and boats singled out," Gibbons said, "we have a better chance of playing a role."

Plausible deniability of Thailand's deep-sea forced labor is no longer an easy defense for importers in one of America's biggest markets. This year, California enacted an ambitious law forcing any business with at least $500,000 in sales within the state economy to prove its supply chain is free of slavery. Those that can't are made to publicly admit potential complicity in overseas forced labor.

If placing the burden of proof on suppliers is the trend, Thailand’s seafood industry may face a reckoning. “They stand to lose a lot of money if they can’t look into their supply chains and prove they’re clean,” Rende Taylor said.

“Perhaps the industry could help regulate itself,” she said. “Why can’t good businesses put pressure on bad ones and say, ‘We don’t want to mar the global reputation of our industry. We want to export clean, good products to the world. Don’t ruin it for us.’”

With additional reporting by Parinee Chantaharn.