When fishermen are slaves, labor audits mean nothing

“We found men in cages and being beaten,” said AP reporter Robin McDowell over Skype at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Food Institute in Monterey, Calif. McDowell, along with her colleagues,  helped rescue more than 2,000 Southeast Asian men from slavery during a months-long investigation into labor abuses in the global fishing industry, especially in Indonesia and Hawaii.

According to the McDowell, 24 hour workdays, murders at sea, physical abuse and not docking for months or years at a time were common for the men they met. “A few… told the same story about a man named the Enforcer, an Indonesian villager who marched them up the hill and beat them until they fell to their knees and then put them in a hut and kept them there for a month,” she said.

McDowell and her colleagues spent the first part of their reporting targeting the small, Indonesian island of Benjina, 400 miles north Australia in the Arafura Sea. As Indonesian fleets have over-harvested waters closer to home, they’ve had to go farther out to sea for their catch, driving the demand for cheap labor. And nothing is cheaper than a slave.

Margie Mason, another AP reporter on the series, interviewed a worker who had been enslaved since 1993. “That was the year I graduated from high school,” she said. “To think of being in a foreign country without any contact with your family all that time…” The man finally returned to his home in Burma, with no idea if his mother or sisters were still alive. “[When they saw each other], the reaction was out of a movie,” she said.

According to the AP, a slave can be purchased for $1,000. “The men are later told they have to work off the “debt” with wages that don’t come for months or years, or at all,” says the AP. Many are kidnapped from Myanmar, one of the world’s poorest countries, and given false Thai papers, since Thailand and Indonesia have an agreement that only workers from the two countries can operate in Indonesian waters, explained McDowell.

“The Indonesian (officials) had been to the island a month or so earlier. They had thought that it all checked out, but after our story came out and they went back to the island, they were genuinely horrified,” she said.

Dr. Lisa Rende Taylor, founder and executive director of the Issara Institute, an anti-human trafficking organization, said at the conference that 20 to 40 million people worldwide are slave laborers. And many of the so-called sustainability audits meant to protect them aren’t effective.

“Audits don’t find slavery,” she said. “Most of the vessels caught with slaves in the last year, had already been audited… If auditors want to know what the labor conditions are, they go to the owner of the business and ask to see payroll and labor documents. They never interview workers in a safe place (where they can speak freely). And honestly, if (auditors) were going to interview them there, you wouldn’t get any good information, because they’re under so much threat of reprisal.”

The Issara Institute instead relies on a telephone hotline to reach workers. “We get thousands of calls a year,” she said, explaining that whether on land or sea, most workers have a cellphone. Voice technology is a way for them to tell the world what they’re going through, how much they’re being paid and how long they’re working, she said. Isaara is developing its own app, “because there are a lot of hip migrant workers out there who use apps,” according to Taylor.

That includes migrant workers in the United States. As the AP report discovered, slavery is not limited to far off waters. In Hawaii, the majority of the fishing fleet is made up of undocumented workers, many of whom were taken against their will from their Southeast Asian homelands. The state ignores the squalor on these fishing boats, which often lack a toilet and may barely feed the men. As long as the workers don’t set foot on shore, no laws are being broken. Trapped on board, the workers watch crowds walk past on docks in Honolulu and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Asked why no one in Hawaii had done anything to intervene, Mason said that people told her, “‘Hey it’s legal.’ That’s what we heard over and over again. Customs is involved. Coast guard is involved. Because it was legal, no one challenged it.”