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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A story now about the dark side of Thailand's fishing trade. Thailand is the world's third largest exporter of fish, and a major supplier to the United States. Its fleet of boats and trawlers is massive, but it's also chronically short of workers, and human traffickers are sending unwilling migrants to work on Thai boats. Reporter Becky Palstrom has this story of how one Cambodian man was lured onto a fishing boat and forced to stay for three years.

BECKY PALSTROM, BYLINE: In a remote Cambodian village, Vannak Prum is harvesting his mother's rice.

VANNAK PRUM: (Speaking foreign language)

PALSTROM: Prum is 33 years old. He's been a monk, a soldier, a rice farmer, a husband, and for three years a slave on a Thai fishing boat.

PRUM: (Through translator) I didn't get paid. I remained in the middle of the sea. I worked day and night.

PALSTROM: Prum and nine other men lived and worked on a Thai fishing boat the length of an 18-wheeler. Prum's captain and the crewmaster were Thai and armed. The rest spoke three other languages and were working as slaves.

PRUM: (Through translator) While we were working on the boat, there were verbal disputes between us. Some people worked harder, some people worked less. Danger always happens at night.

PALSTROM: Thailand's long-haul fishing fleet has tens of thousands of men on the high seas. Around 60,000 of these men, or 40 percent, are not Thai - they're immigrants, many from Burma and Cambodia. Not all the Cambodians and Burmese men are forced onto the boats, but those that are might stay at sea for months or years because their boats are re-supplied out at sea. Prum didn't see land for three years.

MANFRED HORNUNG: So just to mention the psychological pressure, always being crammed together over years, you know, not being able to leave this confined space - that creates also a lot of aggression.

PALSTROM: Manfred Hornung spent years rescuing Cambodian slaves with a group called LICADHO.

HORNUNG: If you want to keep this kind of slave colony under control, you have to use means, either being drugs or violence, in order to keep people down.

PALSTROM: Guns deter mutiny and drugs, mainly amphetamines, keep the men working through the night. When Prum left his village in Cambodia, he never thought he'd end up in these conditions.

PRUM: (Through translator) At that time my wife was pregnant and was expecting to deliver a baby within two months. We didn't have the money for the medical bill.

PALSTROM: He planned to be gone two months, back in time for the birth. But he was intercepted by a taxi driver who doubled as a broker. Brokers often recruit for the human traffickers who then smuggle men into Thailand. The driver offered Prum a job.

PRUM: (Through translator) I asked what kind of job, and he said drying fish.

PALSTROM: Thai boats have such a bad reputation that most brokers promise jobs in other sectors like fish processing, construction or factory work.

PRUM: (Through translator) I said I wouldn't go. I was afraid that I would be cheated and that I wouldn't come back home.

PALSTROM: But after some time, when he didn't find work, he changed his mind. He agreed to go with the driver to a town called Malai.

Malai is a Cambodian border town. Here in the market, Thai noodles, soy sauce and clothes lie side by side with deep fried water snake. Tep Khannal is the district chief of Malai. He says human traffickers line the pockets of the money-lenders, the taxi drivers, even the Cambodian military. He says he can't stop it because too many people are on the traffickers' payroll.

TEP KHANNAL: (Through translator) I want to put an end to this but I cannot handle this problem alone.

PALSTROM: Once Prum and the others crossed the river into Thailand, the trafficker made them get into the back of a truck. Like logs of wood, they had to lie side-by-side and even on top of each other to fit. Prum still believed he was heading for a good paying job on land, drying fish. But his truck pulled into a Thai port and the men were offloaded into a room.

PRUM: (Through translator) On the interior wall of that building, where I was confined, there were boat paintings and descriptions like: In the middle of the sea, I miss my wife, children and parents.

PALSTROM: The house was locked from the outside.

PRUM: (Through translator) I watched through a hole in the wall, I saw the sea and boats. I realized I was trafficked and sold to work on a fishing boat.

PALSTROM: Once on the boat, men are supposed to be protected by the Marine Police. Surapol Thuantong is a former Marine Police commander. He says police and Marine police are part of the problem.

SURAPOL THUANTONG: Every part of the Thai officers benefits from this. From the province, police, labor officers - they all get bribes from illegal migrants and the related businesses.

PALSTROM: In fact, despite the scale of the problem, Thai police only investigated 11 cases of labor trafficking in 2010. Thuantong says there are rules to protect the men, but the Thai government is reluctant to enforce them.

THUANTONG: (Through translator) Well, we stand in a position that we can't follow the rules. Everyone around us is against the rules. We know it's against the law, but we can't fix it, because if we fix it, then this business would be crippled.

PALSTROM: Somchai Wongthong is the under-secretary for Thailand's Department of Labor, the division charged with enforcing Thai labor laws. He says they can't enforce labor laws at sea, so they ask the Navy to do the checks.

SOMCHAI WONGTHONG: (Through translator) The Thai Navy's job is to protect Thai waters. So we should trust that they will do their job and fulfill their duty.

PALSTROM: Trust but no oversight.

WONGTHONG: (Through translator) Hopefully one day in the future, if there are more budget allocations, we can work on that, but now there are certain constraints.

LUIS DEBACA: We've seen a few cases investigated.

PALSTROM: Ambassador Luis deBaca directs the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

DEBACA: To date we're not seeing an awful lot of results yet from the new focus on the abuse that's happening out on the boats.

PALSTROM: Ambassador deBaca says that the State Department's concern goes beyond humanitarian issues. He says slavery on Thai boats is closely tied to overfishing throughout Southeast Asia.

DEBACA: At the end of the day, though, without a coordinated effort by governments in the region, the enslavement of the foreign migrants in the east Asian waters is going to continue to contribute to an impending food security crisis. And that's something that we're very concerned about.

PALSTROM: This impunity concerns the State Department for more than just humanitarian reasons. Captains that violate labor laws are also likely to violate the laws that limit over-fishing. With fisheries already on the decline, this poses real problems. The issue of slavery on Thai boats very quickly becomes a food security problem for the U.S. and the world. For NPR News, this is Becky Palstrom in Songkhla, Thailand.

MONTAGNE: That story was co-reported by Shannon Service. Tomorrow, the extent of corruption in Thailand's fishing industry and what that means for U.S. companies buying fish from abusive boats.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So if I wanted to smuggle anything, if I wanted to smuggle weapons, if I wanted to smuggle drugs, if I wanted to do all these various different things, put it on a fishing boat, because nobody checks.

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