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  • Writer's pictureChinyere Ibeh

AP investigation uncovers slave-like conditions of the fish industry

By Esther Htusan and Margie Mason

Fisherman rest in a temporary shelter in Ambon, Maluku Province, Indonesia as they wait for their flight home. Photographer: Achmad Ibrahim, Associated Press

AMBON, Indonesia — Last year, the Associated Press tracked fish from a slave island in 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. The U.S. companies have all said they strongly condemn labor abuse, and are taking steps in order to prevent it.

A multimillion-dollar Thai-Indonesian fishing business has been shut down, at least 9 people have been arrested and two fishing cargo vessels have been seized. Three class-action lawsuits are underway, new laws have been introduced and the Obama administration is pushing exporters to clean up they’re 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.

Victims Returned Home Thanks to AP Investigation

In the past two weeks, more than two thousand fishermen have been rescued from brutal conditions at sea as a result of the AP investigation.

Dozens of Burmese men in the 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, 25, who lost contact with his family after a broker lured him to Thailand 5 years ago. "I'm their only son. They’re going to cry so hard when they see me."

The largest impact has been the rescue of some of the most desperate and isolated people in the world. More than two thousand men from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have been identified since the AP's initial story ran, according to the International Organization for Migration and foreign ministries.

And those returnee figures don't tell the whole story: Hundreds more have been quietly sent home by their companies, avoiding human trafficking allegations.

"We've never seen a rescue on this scale before", said Lisa Rende Taylor, an anti-trafficking expert formerly with the United Nations who now heads the anti-slavery nonprofit Project Issara. "They deserve compensation and justice. Its hard to believe this still happens in the 21st-century."

In the mid-90s, Thailand dominated Southeast Asia's fishing industry, which earns 7 billion dollars annually in exports. The business relies on tens of thousands of poor migrant laborers, mainly from neighboring Southeast Asian countries. They’re often tricked, sold, or kidnapped and put onto boats that are commonly sent to distant foreign waters to poach fish. Many are indigenous, and have a past history of discrimination in their own communities.

A year-long investigation led the AP to the island village of Benjina, part of Indonesia's Maluku chain. There, workers considered runaway risks were padlocked behind the rusty bars of a cage.

Men in Benjina were the first to go home when government-led rescues began in early June. Many of those leaving from Ambon were handed cash payments by company officials, but they said the money was a fraction of what they were owed.

The Victims’ Testimony

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 someone die.

"My colleague, Chit Oo, fell from the boat into the water," wrote Ye Aung, 32. "The captain said there was no need to search, he will float by himself later."

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 extremely poor families.

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.

The Physical Scars Can Speak for Themselves

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. 4 days later, 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 filled 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".

The Aftermath and Findings of the AP Investigation

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. Mabiru, one of more than ten fishing, processing and cold storage firms in Ambon, sold packages of yellowfin tuna largely headed for Japanese markets, and also shipped to the United States. The company is shuttered and its managers could not be reached.

Florida-based South Pacific Specialties, which distributes to supermarket chains, restaurants and food groups, received a shipping container loaded with frozen tuna from Mabiru in February. Managing partner Francisco Pinto told the AP his company had once rented out Mabiru's facilities in Ambon, bought tuna from private artisanal fishermen, and hired its own workers for filleting and processing fish. Pinto said he has been in Indonesia since June 25 to meet and observe fish suppliers due to American customers demanding fair treatment for workers.

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.

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

"Slavery in Southeast Asia's fishing industry is a real-life horror story", said Representative Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, who is currently among those sponsoring new legislation. "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 companys 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.

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