Illegal Fishing, Molotov Cocktails, A Daring Escape

Jun 20, 2012
Originally published on June 27, 2012 10:47 am

The State Department on Tuesday cited abuses in Thailand's huge fishing industry as part of an annual worldwide report on Trafficking in Persons. The report noted that men from Cambodia and Myanmar, also known as Burma, are trafficked aboard Thai ships and forced to work against their will. They include men like Vannak Prum, a Cambodian who spent three years on such a boat. Prum was among those honored at the State Department on Tuesday.

In the second of two stories, we pick up Prum's tale when he was aboard the Thai boat.

Vannak Prum's boat was fishing illegally deep inside Indonesian waters when the Indonesian navy spotted them. As the Indonesians neared, the captain hit the throttle.

"At first the soldiers didn't want to fire on us," Prum says. "But the captain wouldn't stop."

The patrol fired and, when that failed, they lobbed Molotov cocktails onboard. The vessel caught fire, and Prum — a former soldier — braved gunfire to put it out. The Burmese and Cambodian workers begged their Thai captain to stop, but he wouldn't. The boat had stolen fish and kidnapped crew onboard.

With very little oversight or regulation, rogue Thai captains buy crew members from human traffickers and use them to plunder the fishing grounds of surrounding nations. If the workers disobey or slack off, they're beaten with stingray tails, tire irons, engine belts and, in one case, a sword.

'A Perfect Storm'

The director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, calls it "a perfect storm of slavery and environmental degradation."

Rogue captains with an imprisoned crew are less likely to worry about fishing quotas, and trawl foreign waters, driving fish numbers down.

"Without a coordinated effort by governments in the region," says CdeBaca, "the slavery of foreign migrants in East Asian waters is going to contribute to an impending food security crisis. And that's something we're very concerned about."

The Indonesian navy chased Prum's boat for 10 hours, but turned back at Malaysia's boundary waters. The captain had escaped, but the boat was a smoldering shell.

"The fire-gutted boat was sent back to Thailand for repairs," says Prum. "I was transferred to another fishing boat."

Transferring men from boat to boat at sea is part of the system that keeps men on the ocean for months, or even years.

The other part is a system of shuttle boats, or mother ships, that bring ice, fuel and supplies out to fishing boats and haul back the catch from the fishing boat. The resulting ecosystem is so complete that one captive was kept at sea for nearly a decade.

Prum's captain decided to renew the boat's Malaysian fishing license so they could trawl the waters off the coast of Borneo without the threat of gunfire. This meant he needed to bring the boat close to shore.

Escape Plan

"I had planned to escape for a long time," Prum says, "but I couldn't go anywhere in the middle of the ocean."

As soon as he saw land, Prum and another fisherman grabbed some empty plastic jugs to help them float. Then, around midnight, they plunged into the South China Sea. Prum was free for the first time in three years.

Men often escape off the coast of Tanjung Manis, Malaysia, because it's the port where captains get fishing permits.

A security worker at the port, who goes by the name Agent Azahar, says on average, he sees two men try to escape per month. They don't always make it.

"The scariest incident was when a man tried to escape and the boss came after him with a knife," he says. "The boss killed him — right in front of me."

Prosecutions of Thai captains are rare.

"We've seen a few cases investigated," says CdeBaca, "and one was prosecuted by the Malaysian authorities. But to date, we're not seeing an awful lot of results."

After Prum escaped, he hid out in the forest for the night and found a police station the next morning. He hoped he would be deported to his native Cambodia. But instead, the police picked up the phone. A man in a red car showed up, loaded Prum in, and took him to a palm oil plantation.

Then he was sold. Again.

Prum worked for over a year as an indentured servant before he was finally freed by a network of nongovernmental organizations.

A Regional Problem

Men like Prum are disappearing from villages in Cambodia and Myanmar, ending up on rogue Thai boats and then on plantations in both Malaysia and Indonesia. In the middle of it all is the Thai fleet.

"We see this as a regional problem," says CdeBaca. "It ends up having a destabilizing effect on the entire region."

But despite the scale of the problem, change is slow. Part of the reason is that the supply chain from Thai boats to the American plate is murky.

"Our companies certainly have no interest in sourcing from companies that use exploitative labor practices," says Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, or NFI. It is America's largest seafood trade company and represents giants like Wal-Mart and Chicken of the Sea.

"I don't think it's that American fish companies don't want to go back to the boat level," he says. "But what we've found is that the supply chain — even the regulators who are in a position to put regulations in place — are having real trouble with it, and the companies are having trouble with it as well."

Connecting The Dots

CdeBaca says the supply chain isn't as murky as fish companies say, and he points to how quickly companies move to correct their chain when there's a health concern like food poisoning or salmonella.

"It's a matter of connecting the dots," he says, "and finding out who the abusive contractors, farmers or ship captains are."

But the dots can be difficult to connect.

Between the boat and the fish-processing factory are a number of obstacles.

The first is mother ships. Law-abiding boats use them, too — making it difficult to link a slave boat to its catch. The fish are again muddled together at the port before going to the larger processing and exporting companies that deal with American companies.

Thailand is not considered rigorous in tracking its fishing boats, so it's common for multiple boats to operate under the same license. And roughly 40 percent of Thai boats don't bother registering at all, creating a fleet of "ghost ships."

Invisible Men

Once onboard, the men become shadows, too.

Thailand doesn't require captains to register their crew, so a boat might leave with 10 men, return with seven, and no one's the wiser. If anyone asks a crew member his name, he is told to recite a fake Thai name provided by the captain.

"If I wanted to smuggle anything," says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, "if I wanted to smuggle weapons, if I wanted to smuggle drugs, I would put it on a fishing boat. Because nobody checks."

There is a Thai industry group that wants to register men and certify the boats that use fair labor practices. But it's too soon to tell if the National Fisheries Association of Thailand's plan will work. And, meanwhile, men like Prum are disappearing.

When Prum returned to Cambodia and settled into life as a father and farmer, he never thought he'd leave again. But a few days ago, he boarded a flight at the invitation of Ambassador CdeBaca.

The U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons selected Prum as one of their 2012 trafficking heroes and brought him to Washington, D.C., to receive his award onstage. It was handed to him by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday afternoon at the State Department.

Several groups are helping ex-fishermen get back to their home countries and are supporting them once they get there. They include Tenaganita, Healthcare Center for Children, LSCW, the Labor Protection Network and LICADHO. The Made in a Free World app lets you ask brands about labor practices in their supply chain as you shop.

Research support for this series was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


We return this morning to the story of Vannak Prum. He is the Cambodian man who was tricked into three years of slave labor on a fishing boat. Prum was recognized at the State Department yesterday as a hero in the fight against human trafficking. Thousands of men like him are trafficked to boats in Thailand's giant fishing fleet, a fleet that supplies a large portion of America's seafood. Reporter Becky Palmstrom spoke with Vannak Prum and visited a Thai port where unwilling men like him are sent to sea.

BECKY PALMSTROM, BYLINE: We're in Songkhla in Thailand. We're walking through the docks on a sunny day. A metal disc crunches ice and chips and then spews them down a chute into the holes of the fishing boats. The air reeks of fish. We're crossing now onto one of the fishing boats here, walking across. These trawlers are wooden and roughly the length of a basketball court. All the metal parts have rusted on this one, and some of the paint is flaking off.

Okay. So we've got sort of crates of it looks like dirty water. I don't quite know what this is. What is this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bath — take a bath. Take a bath.

PALMSTROM: The bath water is filthy. Conditions on fishing boats are tough, even on boats where the men are treated well. Limited bath water, crowded bunks, and financial uncertainty make this industry one of the least desirable to work in. The owner of this boat, Ly Oo says it's a battle to find willing workers.

LY OO: (Through translator) I don't know. Sometimes the boats go out for a whole year, and sometimes income is not guaranteed. You can't compete with a factory where there's guaranteed payment every month.

PALMSTROM: Human traffickers have stepped in to fill the gap often promising Cambodian and Burmese man land-based work to lure them into Thailand. A broker told Vannak Prum that if he left his home in Cambodia, he'd get a good job on land, but instead he ended up forced on board a boat like this one.

VANNAK PRUM: (Through translator) We worked day and night. Sometimes we fished three days and nights without stopping. After work we bathed. If we used more water than we were allowed, we would be beaten up. It happened not only on my boat, but on every boat.

PALMSTROM: Prum says he was whipped with the tail of a stingray. We spoke with 13 other fisherman who reported similar treatment. Skirting around the bathing area and going into the helm now. Oh, they're working right now. At this point we're rushed off the boat and the crew cast off. We then learned that a man who is well known in the community for trafficking workers onto boats had placed two men onto the very boat we were standing on. Once the victims are on board, they all but disappear.

It's common for multiple boats to operate under the same license making them almost impossible to track. Captains are not required to register crew lists, and often give their immigrant crew fake Thai IDs and fake Thai names. Phil Robertson, now with Human Rights Watch, wrote what many consider to be the authoritative investigation on abuses on Thai boats.

PHIL ROBERTSON: So if I wanted to smuggle anything, if I want to smuggle weapons, if I wanted to smuggle drugs, if I wanted to do all these various different things, put it on a fishing boat because nobody checks.

PALMSTROM: Once at sea, captains with forced labor will generally try to stay out as long as possible to stop their men from jumping ship. Some boats seek Malaysian fishing licenses so they can access better fishing grounds. And so they come to this area near Tanjung Manees to fill out their paperwork. Vannak Prum worked for three years at sea before he caught sight of this stretch of Malaysian Coast.

PRUM: (Through translator) I plotted the escape a long time ago, but I could not go anywhere in the middle of the ocean. I could not escape.

PALMSTROM: But with land in sight, Prum and other fisherman grabbed some empty plastic jugs to help them float. Then around midnight they plunged into the South China Sea and swam a few miles to shore.

PRUM: (Through translator) When I managed to escape into the forest, I knew I would live.

PALMSTROM: Prum spent the night in the forest and went to the police the following day.

PRUM: (Through translator) I thought that when I was in police hands, the police would inform the Embassy and they would help me get back to Cambodia.

PALMSTROM: Instead, the police picked up the phone, a red car pulled up, Prum was loaded in, taken to a palm oil plantation and sold again. In all, he was away five years. Prum's odyssey is a common one. Men are disappearing from villages in Cambodia and Burma, spending years at sea and then ending up often on plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. Not all Thai boats used forced labor, but the fish caught by legitimate boats gets mixed in with the fish from abusive boats. Phil Robertson.

ROBERTSON: What happens is you have middlemen fishmongers between the piers and the factories, and these fishmongers have multiple clients amongst the peers and they have multiple clients amongst the factories, and they will basically consolidate and then redistribute.

PALMSTROM: American fish companies deal with exporters, but those exporters can't always say which boats the fish came from. This poses real problems for American fish companies.

ROBERTSON: U.S. companies should recognize that these goods, produced with forced labor, are in violation of the 1930 Tariff Act, you know, it's an illegal import into the United States.

GAVIN GIBBONS: Our companies certainly have no interest in sourcing seafood from companies that use illegal or exploitative labor practices.

PALMSTROM: Gavin Gibbons is with the National Fisheries Institute. It is America's largest seafood trade company and represents many of the largest fish import companies - from Wal-Mart stores to Chicken of the Sea and Bumblebee Foods.

GIBBONS: I don't think it's that American fish companies don't want to go down to the boat level themselves, but what we've found is that the value chain that even the regulators that are in position to put regulations in place are having real trouble with it, that the companies are having trouble with it as well.

PALMSTROM: This muddied supply chain also means that responsible Thai boats could get painted with the slavery brush. This worries the National Fisheries Association of Thailand. Last year they denied forced labor even exists on Thai boats, but now they're doing an about face. Wicharn Sirichai-Ekawat is an advisor to the group.

WICHARN SIRICHAI-EKAWAT: The change is because this is the last opportunity for us.

PALMSTROM: The National Fisheries Association of Thailand has announced two initiatives. They plan to register migrants so they can work legally, and they also want to certify the boats that comply with labor standards so American companies and consumers know what they're buying.

ROBERTSON: Well, it depends on whether it's really serious or whether it's just what we call in Thai, (speaking foreign language).

PALMSTROM: Phil Robertson again.

ROBERTSON: Which is the sprig of coriander on top of something to make it look better even though it doesn't taste very good.

PALMSTROM: It's too soon to tell if the certification process will have an impact. Meanwhile, the flow of man onto Thai boats continues unabated. For NPR News, this is Becky Palmstrom.

MONTAGNE: And that story included reporting from Shannon Service. To see a photo of Vannak Prum and learn more about his plight, visit Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.