In Thailand, many Burmese migrants are enslaved in the shrimp industry, from which the U.S. imported one-third of its nearly 5 billion dollars of shrimp last year.
By Matt Rusling
Dec. 28, 2012
Mae Sot, Thailand – Sitting in a dimly-lit hotel room, Zaw recounts the horrors of being enslaved on a Thai shrimping boat where he was often beaten and once witnessed a killing.
In his mid-20s, rail thin and wearing a t-shirt bearing the name of his church, he tells Borderless News about when he watched his shipmate receive electric shocks until the man could no longer stand.
“‘That’s what happens when people try to escape,'” the Thai captain told Zaw and two-dozen crew members who were forced to watch while the worker was shot and dumped overboard.
Many like Zaw leave impoverished Burma for a better life, only to be sold into forced labor in the shrimp industry by human traffickers. Activists and researchers say such cases are widespread in Thailand, the number one exporter of shrimp into the U.S. market, contending there is financial incentive for Thai producers to enslave workers and for U.S. importers to look the other way.
Indeed, U.S. consumers demand cheap shrimp, and some Thai producers cut costs by exploiting workers in a bid to maintain their global market share, says the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a U.S. trade group.
Most human trafficking — defined as forced or coerced labor — occurs in unregulated companies, such as peeling sheds and boats that skirt Thai law. Still, trafficking can happen in regulated companies, and there have been reports of human trafficking among some major exporters, Andy Hall, an expert on Burmese labor exploitation at Mahidol University in Bangkok, tells Borderless.
Thai Frozen Foods Association Secretary General Arthon Piboonthanapatana tells Borderless that his organization, which represents more than 200 exporters predominantly in the shrimp business, works with international labor, non-governmental organizations and the U.S. embassy to combat exploitation, and he contends that members abide by policies forbidding child and slave labor.
THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS
For many Burmese, the nightmare of forced labor begins in Mae Sot, a bustling border town teeming with Burmese workers of every religion and ethnic stripe.
They cross the narrow river into Thailand in a bid to find work, and are promised jobs by duplicitous brokers who recruit and take them deep into Thailand and sell them into debt bondage.
No precise figures exist on the number of victims, though such stories run rampant among Thailand’s Burmese community of 2 million to 3 million people. One UN study, led by Courtland Robinson at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that more than two-thirds of unregistered workers and more than half of registered workers in shrimp production hub Samut Sakhon, outside of Bangkok, experienced some level of human trafficking. The province is home to up to 20 percent of Thailand’s Burmese population.
For Phyo, a round-cheeked 23-year-old with a quick smile, the ordeal started when a broker approached her in Mae Sot and told her she could make good money peeling shrimp near Bangkok. She had come to Mae Sot to work in a sock factory, and with a sick mother to support back in Burma, earning more money in a shrimp processing factory seemed like a good idea.
The road to the Thai capital was choked with checkpoints erected by police seeking to arrest or extort bribes from illegal migrants, she tells Borderless, so the broker took a group of around 20 including Phyo through a grueling, six-day trek through the forest.
What little water she was given was laced with methamphetamines, she believes, a practice common among human traffickers. The liquid gave her a surge of energy that kept her going, while most of the others never made it. She isn’t sure whether they died or just turned back. Along the way, the brokers raped a female passenger, she says.
On arrival at the factory, she learned she would have to work five years to pay off the debt she had incurred in transportation fees.
Armed guards prevented her from leaving the factory, where she often worked 22-hour days with little to eat, and where she began passing out due to exhaustion and lack of food.
“I thought I would die if I stayed,” she says, explaining how she escaped by climbing over a wall and making her way to a nearby road, where she was arrested by Thai police and deported.
U.S. RESPONSE CRITICIZED
The U.S. State Department condemns the practice of human trafficking and publishes an annual report on the problem, which assigns a ranking for each country based on its efforts to combat the crime. In 2012, Thailand for the third year in a row was placed on a watch list as having made efforts to tackle the issue but falling short of international standards. Ordinarily, that would trigger an automatic downgrade and the possibility of sanctions, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a rare waiver on grounds that Thailand has written a new plan to combat human trafficking.
Thailand’s Office of the Anti-Trafficking Committee at the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security tells Borderless it fully assists victims, and that its plan will “seriously address the problem,” noting that is has established networks in all provinces to combat human trafficking.
Critics, including Hall, have expressed reservations over Thailand’s plan. Hall says trafficking is much more widespread than Thailand acknowledges and calls the government’s response overly bureaucratic. Trafficking cases are often mislabeled as labor exploitation, and witnesses must spend time giving evidence in trials, which prevents them from working. Trials are rarely successful, and once they are over, victims are simply deported, he says.
The U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was unable to respond by the time Borderless went to press.
A number of Burmese activists Borderless has spoken to in Thailand say they believe the U.S. is mostly engaged in lip service. Other activists believe the U.S. is reluctant to sanction its ally.
Borderless spoke about the U.S. role with a Burmese activist during the day-long drive from Bangkok to to Mae Sot, who prefers to keep his name out of print due to the dangerous nature of his work.
In his mid-50s with more energy than most people half his age, he works long hours for little pay, and depends on donations to do his life’s work of doing anything and everything to help Thailand’s Burmese community, from finding caretakers for abandoned babies to fighting labor exploitation.
While rounding a sharp curve at breakneck speed, he says that whatever actions the U.S. has taken have had little impact on the ground.
Some Burmese say they have trouble putting their horrific experiences behind them. None are in counseling, and few if any programs exist to address their problems. One says he plans to seek out and kill the factory owner who had held him captive.
Some exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as depression, anger and fear.
One survivor, Tonton, escaped from forced labor aboard a Thai fishing vessel by jumping overboard in the black of night. Tattooed with jet black hair, he seems apprehensive. In quick huffs, he tells an interpreter that he is afraid to be back in Thailand after crossing over from Burma to meet Borderless for an interview.
This reporter offers him water, which he sniffs suspiciously, to make sure it isn’t something else. I ask him how he has coped since escaping his captors and returning to Burma.
Two years later, the ordeal continues to haunt him: “I feel like a tree that can’t grow anymore,” he says.
-Edited by Frank Fuhrig
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