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.”
Eventually, a sympathetic taxi driver offered to drive Winko to a factory where a friend was working several provinces over. Through a network of Burmese laborers, he was guided to the Labor Rights Promotion Network, an organization known for confronting law-breaking fishing crews. Its leadership is currently sheltering Winko as it pursues his broker.
“We get more than a thousand cases like this each year,” said Piyakrai Seelakort, manager of the network’s human rights team. Winko’s story, he said, is tame compared to others. For fishing syndicates, he said, the sea is a lawless haven where even murder has no consequence. Police are unlikely to notice that an illegal migrant has gone missing.
“Life aboard these boats depends on the captors,” Piyakrai said. “They own you.”
Near Piyakrai’s office in Samut Sakhon, a string of ports take in much of Thailand’s freshly caught seafood. Gaunt men emerge from fishing boats, their forearms straining to haul plastic buckets packed with seafood and crushed ice that quickly goes liquid in the heat.
The horizon here is industrial and pewter gray, a long coastline of squat factories processing more than 40 percent of Thailand’s seafood. Like the boats that supply their seafood, these plants too are sometimes accused of using forced laborers and underage workers.
A 2006 survey backed by researchers from Thailand’s Mahidol University found that the plants often employ workers younger than 15 working 12-hour-plus days. This is where seafood is prepared — the tuna heads lopped off, the shrimp deveined — and readied for the distributors who ship it to the U.S.
The supply chain eventually leads to America’s largest supermarkets, according to investigations by the Solidarity Center, a non-profit agency under the AFL-CIO.
Retailers Costco, Giant, Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s and Walmart have all bought seafood originating from factories with substandard working conditions in Samut Sakhon, according to shipping manifests obtained by the center. Ascertaining conditions on the fishing boats that supply the plants, however, is more difficult.
The U.S. State Department, in a 2009 report, said there are no reliable means of knowing how many people in Thailand have fallen victim to forced labor. The Labor Rights Promotion Network estimates there are at least 200,000 Burmese migrants working in the Samut Sakhon seafood industry alone.
“After the seafood goes through these factories, the main markets are Europe and America,” Piyakrai said. “I wonder, do those people know they’re eating the product of forced labor? It’s delicious, but it’s at the expense of other people’s lives.”
While American officials have praised Thailand for stepping up crackdowns and building new shelters for escaped victims, officials insist forced labor remains endemic in the seafood industry. One police raid, according to Solidarity Center findings, exposed a shrimp factory owner who oversaw forced labor and children younger than 15. He was reportedly fined $2,100 and allowed to resume working.
“The Thai government still has little negotiating power with the fisheries,” Piyakrai said. “So it’s up to the person buying the seafood. Only they can really demand better conduct.”
But Winko feels no bitterness toward the people who’ve eaten the seafood he caught.
“My sadness, my anger, is directed towards the broker and the boat captain,” Winko said. “We were tricked.”