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Is your seafood harvested by slaves?

Man tells of torture, murder on the high seas.

Migrant workers load a stingray into a pick-up truck at the jetty in Samut Sakhon on the outskirts of Bangkok, March 26, 2007. (Darren Schuettler/Reuters)

Editor's note: This story is part of a project spearheaded by GlobalPost's Study
Abroad team and summer interns. They spent the summer learning about
the world's endangered oceans and their work is displayed in this
interactive graphic.

SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand — Soon after Winko joined his fellow captives on a Thai fishing vessel, he witnessed his first killing.

The murdered man was, like Winko, a newly acquired fishing slave unsure how to work the boat’s machinery. But while Winko kept quiet, the new man protested. He was kicked across the deck until he tumbled overboard and disappeared in the turquoise wake.

Life is hell for Thailand’s fishermen slaves, a largely Burmese workforce lured into the Thai fishing industry by brokers. As promised, jobs await these migrants, who pay $350 to be smuggled into Thailand and introduced to a fishing crew. But often, the work doesn’t pay and quitting is not an option.

Thailand is the world’s largest seafood exporter and the United States is its largest buyer. One third of America’s shrimp is imported from Thailand, home to a $2-billion shrimp industry and a major supplier of tuna, squid and other frozen seafood imports.

But it’s an open secret that the industry relies, in part, on forced labor. Experts believe a portion of America’s seafood is hauled from the sea by people like Winko: desperate, young Burmese men duped into forced labor. Now 24, he is an escapee hiding out in Samut Sakhon, an industrial port that is the heart of Thailand’s seafood industry.

“I was just a metal worker in Burma,” said Winko, who declined to give his full name for fear of retribution. “Back home, you don’t make enough to eat. I thought coming to Thailand would improve my life.”

Last year, a Burmese broker accepted about $300 — Winko’s hard-earned savings — to smuggle him into Thailand and arrange a low-wage fishing job. Instead, Winko was sold to an illegal fishing syndicate. He spent his first night in Thailand in a dark chamber, padlocked from the outside, with about 10 other men. His cell was only one room in what he described as a dingy prison camp for hundreds of captives.

In short time, Winko was working the sea with a mostly Burmese crew. The captain pushed them until they nearly fainted from exhaustion, he said, and only allowed them to eat leftovers from the net. Winko was warned against complaining, a threat reinforced once he saw a crewmate kicked overboard.

“Anyone who didn’t know what to do was kicked,” Winko explained through a Burmese interpreter. “We were all treated so terribly.”

Winko’s nine months of slavery ended in a busy port in Chonburi, a province near Bangkok. The boat was docked. The captain was distracted. So Winko ran. He ran past the port, into the jungly underbrush, and hiked for four hours until he found a road.

“If someone had caught up to me, I was prepared to fight,” he said. “But I never looked back. I was thinking only of survival.”