2,000 Fishermen Rescued Off Indonesian Coast

The Associated Press uncovers fishy hiring practices at seafood companies.

AMBON, Indonesia — A multimillion-dollar Thai-Indonesian fishing business has been shut down, at least nine people have been arrested and two fishing cargo vessels have been seized following a year-long investigation by The Associated Press. 

Kyaw Naing, a slave from Myanmar, looks through the bars of a cell on land belonging to a fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia. (Photo: The Associated Press, May 15, 2019)

In the past two weeks, more than 2,000 fishermen have been rescued from brutal conditions at sea, liberated as a result of an investigation into seafood brought to the U.S. 

Dozens of Burmese men in the bustling port town of Ambon were the latest to go home this week, some more than a decade after being trafficked onto Thai trawlers. Grabbing one another’s hands, the men walked together toward buses. As they pulled away for the airport, some of those still waiting their turn to go home cheered, throwing their arms in the air.

“I’m sure my parents think I’m dead,” said Tin Lin Tun, who lost contact with his family subsequent to a broker luring him to Thailand five years ago. Instead of working in construction, as promised, he was sold onto a fishing boat and taken to Indonesia. “I’m their only son. They’re going to cry so hard when they see me.”

The AP investigation led to the island village of Benjina, part of Indonesia’s Maluku chain about 400 miles north of Australia. There, workers considered runaway risks were padlocked behind the rusty bars of a cage.

A Return Home

Men in Benjina were the first to go home when rescues led by the Indonesian government first began in early June. Since then, hundreds more have been identified and repatriated from neighboring islands. Many of those leaving recently from Ambon were handed cash payments by company officials, but they said the money was a fraction of what they were owed. 

Myat Ko Ko Lay, a Burmese fisherman rescued from a human trafficking ring, is congratulated as he leaves Ambon, Maluku province, Indonesia. (Photo: Achmad Ibrahim, The Associated Press, July 15, 2020)

“We’ve never seen a rescue on this scale before,” said Lisa Rende Taylor, an anti-trafficking expert formerly with the U.N. who now heads the anti-slavery nonprofit Project Issara, based in Cleveland. “They deserve compensation and justice. It’s hard to believe this still happens in the 21st century.” 

Regardless of the increased global attention, hundreds of thousands of men still are forced to work in the seafood industry.

Many experts believe the most effective pressure for change can come from consumers, whose hunger for cheap seafood is helping fuel the massive labor abuses. In the mid-90s, Southeast Asia’s fishing industry first began to be dominated by Thailand, which earns $7 billion annually in exports. The business relies on thousands of poor migrant laborers, mainly from neighboring Southeast Asian countries. Many are indigenous, and have a past history of discrimination in their own communities.

An AP survey of almost 400 men underscores the horrific conditions fishing slaves faced. Many described past experiences of being whipped with stingray tails, deprived of food and water and forced to work for years in the absence of pay. More than 20% said they were beaten, 30% said they saw someone else beaten and 12% said they saw a person die.

“My colleague, Chit Oo, fell from the boat into the water,” wrote Ye Aung of Myanmar. “The captain said there was no need to search; he will float by himself later.”

Another man, Than Min Oo, said he was not paid and wrote simply: “Please help me.”

Physical and Emotional Souvenirs Linger

For many, the return home is bittersweet. Parents collapse in tears upon seeing their sons, and some men meet siblings born after they left. But almost all come back empty-handed, struggle to find jobs and feel they are yet another burden to their impoverished families. At least one crowd-sourcing website, set up by Anti-Slavery International, hopes to help them.

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine earlier this year, based on interviews with over one thousand trafficking survivors from different industries, found half of those returning from slavery at sea suffered from depression and around 40% from post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. Those men were not connected to the Benjina cases.

Rescued fisherman rest at a temporary shelter in Ambon, Maluku province, Indonesia. (Photo: Achmad Ibrahim, The Associated Press, June 8, 2020)

Many bear physical scars as well.

Tun Lin, who returned to Myanmar last week, held up his right hand: a stump with just a thumb.

He said one finger was ripped off while he tried to wrangle an unwieldy net on the deck of his boat, and the other three were crushed beyond saving. He was taken by refrigerated cargo delivery ship to Thailand, where the remaining digits were surgically removed. Four days later, he said, he was put back on a ship bound for Indonesia, where he fished for the next three years.

“There were some good captains, but there were a lot of bad ones,” the 33-year-old fisherman said, his eyes filling with tears as he described how “boat leaders” were assigned to act as enforcers, beating up fishermen who weren’t working fast enough. “When we asked for our money, they’d say they didn’t have it … but then they’d go to nightclubs, brothels and bars, drinking expensive alcohol.”

Like many of the men rescued from Ambon, Tun Lin was employed by PT Mabiru Industries, where operations were halted several months ago as authorities investigated trafficking and illegal fishing in the industry there. Mabiru, one of more than 10 fishing, processing and cold storage firms in Ambon, sold packages of yellowfin tuna largely headed for Japanese markets and also shipped to the U.S. The company is shuttered, and its managers could not be reached.

Legal Ramifications in the US

The AP tracked fish from eastern Indonesia to the supply chains of some of America’s biggest food sellers, such as Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, and popular brands of canned pet food like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and IAMS Co. The U.S. companies have all said they strongly condemn labor abuse and are taking steps in order to prevent it.

Amid the increased scrutiny, some have taken legal action. In the past month, three separate class-action lawsuits have been filed, naming Mars Inc., IAMS Co., Proctor & Gamble, Nestle USA Inc., Nestle Purina Petcare Co. and Costco, accusing them of having seafood supply chains tainted with slave labor. 

Ashley Klann, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based law firm behind several of the cases, said the litigation “came as a result of AP’s reporting.” The pet-food companies refused to comment.

In the U.S., importers have demanded change, three class-action lawsuits are underway, new laws have been introduced and the Obama administration is pushing exporters to clean up their labor practices. The AP’s work was entered into the congressional record for a hearing and is scheduled to be brought up for discussion again later this month.

“Slavery in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry is a real-life horror story,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who is currently among those sponsoring new legislation. The House voted 300-135 in March 2019 to formally investigate accusations of forced labor. “It’s no longer acceptable for companies to deny responsibility … not when people are kept in cages, not when people are made to work like animals for decades to pad some company’s bottom line.”

AP writer Robin McDowell contributed to this report from Yangon, Myanmar, and AP National Writer Martha Mendoza contributed from Washington, D.C., and California. Mason reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.