- Hundreds of Southeast Asian mainlanders who were trafficked onto Thai-run fishing boats in Indonesia have been rescued and repatriated in recent months.
- Al Jazeera tracked down four ex-slaves to their homes in Myanmar. None had received the compensation they were promised when they agreed to return to the country.
- “If we don’t get our money, I will have to accept it,” one of the men said. “I can’t do anything.”
Twenty-hour work days, savage beatings with stingray tails, years at sea with no way home.
Until the release of a thunderbolt Associated Press report in March 2015, these brutal features of Southeast Asia’s fishing industry were largely invisible to the world.
Today, governments, especially in Indonesia and Thailand, have been pressured to address the abuses, passing a bevy of new regulations and even prosecuting some of the worst offenders.
A new Al Jazeera documentary examines the pace of progress by asking a different question: What is being done to secure justice for the victims of trafficking and slavery?
To answer, a film crew travels to Ambon Port in eastern Indonesia to ask Burmese victims to tell their stories.
“The way they forced us to work was [actually] worse than slaves,” said one of the Burmese interviewed at the sprawling port, where a care center has been set up for men awaiting repatriation.
“Slaves would have their own time to eat, time to sleep,” he said. “We only had time to work.”
Since the AP report came out 11 months ago, the Indonesian government, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has been ratcheting up the repatriations of former slaves. As of early March, just 24 of the hundreds of men were still waiting to go home.
Most of them were rescued off boats in 2015, while others had fled years before and were already living in Indonesia. All were given the opportunity to negotiate backpay with their former captors.
The film found that despite this unprecedented effort to secure compensation, many of the former slaves were being duped into taking less than half of what they were owed. Others resigned themselves to the smaller sums in the hopes that doing so would get them home faster.
The filmmakers tracked down four such Burmese to their homes in Yangon, Myanmar’s capital.
Despite promises from embassy officials from Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia, five months since their repatriation they’ve yet to see a penny of their backpay.
“They told us to fill out our names, the boat’s name and how much we were owed,” one of the men said in the film. “They said they would make sure we got our compensation. Now it seems very likely that we won’t, as we haven’t heard any reply from them.”
“If we don’t get our money, I will have to accept it. I can’t do anything,” said another.
“We are like water in their hands. They can do whatever they want.”
To compensate the 2,500 ex-slaves repatriated in the last five years, the documentary estimates it would cost $35 million dollars — a drop in the bucket compared to Thai fishing industry’s $7 billion in annual profits.
Daniel Murphy, a consultant who works with Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, stressed that compensation must also be conceived in terms of justice and addressing the root drivers of maritime slavery, especially on the demand side.
“Western consumers and the international community have to accept some degree of responsibility [for maritime slavery],” he said in the documentary.
“The price we’ve been paying for those products does not reflect the true cost of their production, as It hasn’t taken into account that people have been exploited and abused to get that seafood onto the shelves of our local retailer.”
Last August, the European Union issued the Thai government a “yellow card,” giving the country six months to address rights abuses in its fishing industry or face a ban on its seafood exports.
In February, a team of investigators arrived in Thailand to assess the state of progress. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.