It’s been three years since hundreds of fishing boat “slaves” were found abandoned and destitute on a remote island in eastern Indonesia.

Dumped by unscrupulous boat owners, the men’s plight was a horror story that made headlines around the world. Yet problems plaguing Southeast Asia’s notorious fishing industry remain messy and unresolved.

Nearly 3,000 fishermen have been rescued from Benjina Island and other places in Indonesia by two Thailand-based unions who help workers in the country’s multi-billion dollar fishery sector. But hundreds more Thai, Myanmar, Cambodian and Lao fishermen are believed to remain stuck there, a seminar in Bangkok heard this week.

Most of the “long lost” men brought home to families and loved ones on mainland Southeast Asia have received little or no payment for their years of hard work and virtual imprisonment in isolated parts of Indonesia, representatives of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) and the Thai and Migrant Fishers Union Group (TMFG) said on June 5.

Faced with the threat of a ban on seafood exports by the European Union, major reforms have been enacted by Thailand’s military government and big seafood companies. Yet recent moves to try to clean up rogue elements of an industry plagued by gross abuse of workers have only been a partial success.

Returned fishermen who spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand this week, along with a senior government official and a representative from the International Labour Organization (ILO), said forced labor, human trafficking and non-payment of workers continue to be a concern.

In this handout photograph released by Indonesia's Ministry of Fishery on April 8, 2015, hundreds of rescued foreign fishermen mostly from Myanmar and Thailand are gathered by Indonesia's illegal fishing task force accompanied by Thai officials during an operation at the private Indonesian fishing firm Pusaka Benjina Resources on April 4, 2015, located in remote Benjina island of Maluku province. The Indonesian government has announced it will form a special team to investigate allegations of slavery in the fishing industry, as officials prepare to return hundreds of foreign crewmen to their homelands. AFP PHOTO / UGENG NUGROHO / MINISTRY OF FISHERY ------ EDITORS NOTE ------ RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / UGENG NUGROHO / MINISTRY OF FISHERY" -- NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP PHOTO / MINISTRY OF FISHERY / UGENG NUGROHO
Fishermen from Myanmar and Thailand, rescued from remote Benjina Island, prepare to return to their homelands. Photo: AFP/Ugeng Nugroho/Ministry of Fishery

‘I never thought I’d make it home’

Chairat Ratchapaksi, a Thai man from Phetchaburi, south of Bangkok, was one who survived the “nightmare” in Indonesia.

“In 2013, one of my colleagues, in the same village, asked me to go with him to work in Indonesia as a fisherman. When I was there I found a lot of problems; for instance, we were exploited, working for long hours in the day with a lot of difficulty. I never once thought that we would make it back to Thailand,” he said.

After being rescued, he felt compelled to warn his compatriots and others about the dangers of being caught in the fishing industry; travel documents and work permits are often forged and passports confiscated after a boat goes to sea. He believed human trafficking was still a huge problem.

TMCF members at FCCT
Fishermen returned from Benjina have set up a union to help others avoid abuse. They spoke in Bangkok on June 5. Tun Lin is third from right in the front row. Photo: Asia Times

Tun Lin lost four of his fingers and was stranded on Benjina “for years.” Originally from Myanmar, he came to Thailand to find work but was tricked into working in Indonesia. Tun is one of a handful of survivors – many died on Benjina – who proudly declare that they have gone “from victim to hero” by helping to found a group that can help to stop others suffering the horrendous treatment he endured.

“It took me about five months to get my compensation – about 300,000 baht (about US$9,400),” he said. “After I received that, I could have returned to my country again but I think there are still many victims … that still haven’t received any assistance yet, so I talked with LPN and former fishing crews on how we can collaborate to raise this issue and form our group TMFG.”

The Thai and Migrant Fishers Group is an unofficial union set up after the crisis in 2015. It is linked to LPN, which helps the 300,000 or so migrants in the seafood processing sector in Samut Sakhon and Mahachai.

The group is run by Sompong Srakaew, who first helped raise the alarm about the horde of fishermen stuck Benjina. Sompong said hundreds of foreign fishermen are still caught in Indonesia, because of a lack of identity documents or being deemed to have worked illegally.

Sompong
Sompong Srakaew, center, heads the LPN fishery union. Photo: Facebook/J.Hallacy

‘We’re still getting distress calls’

LPN manager Patima Tungpuchayakul has been to Indonesia 12 times to rescue fishermen stuck in the archipelago. “Even though LPN and TMFG have rescued nearly 3,000 workers from Indonesia and returned them to the embrace of their family, we are still receiving distress calls from many workers in the Thai fishing fleet who are still stranded in Indonesia,” she said.

She warned that captains of some vessels were determined to cheat and get around reforms imposed recently by the Thai government. One trick they used, she said, was presenting legal nets when boats are inspected, but then using illegal nets “that catch everything” at sea.

While such problems are persistent and difficult to counter, there have also been signs of progress, an ILO representative noted. The Thai government recently ratified the ILO protocol against forced labor and is now drafting a law against it. The Prayut Chan-ocha-led government has also committed to ratifying Convention No 188 on work in the fishing industry. That is expected to happen in a few months. 

Thailand’s move to sign the Forced Labor Protocol was “a big deal,” Jason Judd from the ILO told the seminar. “This makes Thailand the first member country, the first country in Asia to ratify this protocol.  And we’re still waiting to see the law that follows, the draft act, if it advances the law against forced labor in terms of victim protection.”

Pay in Thai fishing is ‘a tangled mess’

However, a survey of workers in the fishing and seafood processing industries in 10 Thai provinces earlier this year suggested far greater improvements were needed, he said. Only 42% of workers could recall signing a contract and even less had a copy of the contract. And the poll found the pay for a quarter of the fishermen had been withheld.

“In truth, pay in Thai fishing is a tangled mess. And the fact that it’s still done in cash without decent records [instead of via electronic transfer] is a big part of the problem,” he said. Enforcement of regulations was the best way to raise standards in the fishing industry, Judd said.

The ILO is working with businesses and employee groups, as well as the government, to try to ensure that workers are not made to work more than 14 hours a day.

Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch, a rights advocacy group, said there was evidence that fishing boat owners had sought to evade reforms undertaken by the government in Thailand by simply registering their vessels in Myanmar.

The number of long-range Thai fishing vessels is believed to have dropped dramatically from about 600 to a couple of dozen, suggesting that many have shifted to the Gulf or areas off Africa, others said.

In this handout photograph released by Indonesia's Ministry of Fishery on April 8, 2015, graves with makeshift markers bearing names of individuals claimed to be those of enslaved fishermen are seen during an operation by Indonesian illegal fishing task force accompanied by Thai officials at the private Indonesian fishing firm Pusaka Benjina Resources located in remote Benjina island of Maluku province on April 1, 2015 where hundreds of foreign fishermen mostly from Myanmar and Thailand were rescued. The Indonesian government has announced it will form a special team to investigate allegations of slavery in the fishing industry, as officials prepare to return hundreds of foreign crewmen to their homelands. AFP PHOTO / UGENG NUGROHO / MINISTRY OF FISHERY ------ EDITORS NOTE ------ RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / UGENG NUGROHO / MINISTRY OF FISHERY" -- NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP PHOTO / MINISTRY OF FISHERY / UGENG NUGROHO
Graves with markers bearing names of enslaved fishermen said to have died on Benjina are seen in April 2015. Hundreds of foreign fishermen are said to remain in Indonesia despite 3,000 being returned to mainland Southeast Asia. Photo: AFP/ Ugeng Nugroho

Read: Forced labor persists on Thai fishing boats, HRW says