It has one of the largest fishing fleets in the world and much of the catch from Thailand’s fishing boats ends up on Japanese, European and American plates. Yet the industry stands accused of profiting from slave labour.
As part of the BBC’s Freedom 2014 season, Becky Palmstrom investigates this tale of modern day slavery. She travels to Thailand and Burma (also known as Myanmar), to find out why and how illegal migrants are being forced onto Thai fishing boats, many of them working for months unpaid. She hears allegations of cruelty and even murder.
In Thailand, Becky meets Ken, from rural Burma, who hoped to make a better life for himself and his ageing parents. He ended up being trafficked twice onto Thai fishing boats. The first time conditions were so bad that he preferred to risk his life jumping overboard and swimming for six hours before reaching shore. The second time, having been promised a job in a pineapple processing factory, he once again ended up on a fishing boat but he and the rest of the Burmese crew were rescued by a non-governmental organisation and a special branch of the Thai police.
The BBC team was able to bring his parents, back in Burma, the first news they had had of their son for four years. The Thai authorities admit that most of their fishing fleet is unregistered and much of it relies on illegal migrant labour. A lot of that labour is trafficked from Burma and Cambodia. Under pressure – particularly from the US State Department – to improve its record on human trafficking, the Thai government insists it is now making every effort to clamp down on trafficking and forced labour in its fishing industry. The BBC team is taken on a “raid” of fishing boats by the Thai Marine Police. It also hears disturbing stories from Burmese crewmen on Thai fishing boats, from captains and boat owners, indicating there is a long way to go before consumers can be certain the fish they eat has not been caught by slaves.
Thailand’s Slave Fishermen is the first documentary in the Freedom 2014 season on the World Service, running from January-April 2014 - a season of hard-hitting investigative work looking at the state of freedom today all over the world.