Back in 2013, Chairat Ratchapaksi found a job as a commercial fisherman to support his family.
Quickly hired by a boat owner in Samut Songkram Province on the Gulf of Thailand, he would spent the next two years of his life continuously at sea.
He was forced to work 24-hour shifts, was not paid, and was beaten by the skipper and threatened with being thrown overboard if he complained.
Finally, he was”dumped on an island and put in jail” — he, like thousands of other fishermen from Southeast Asia, were abandoned on the remote Indonesian island of Benjina.
“I didn’t know how to escape,” says Chairat, who now runs the Thai and Migrant Fishers Union Group (TMFG). “We sent a letter to the Thai ambassador in Indonesia from prison but we got no response. Nothing happened. I thought, ‘Who is going to rescue me?’ I felt hopeless.”
The Thai fishing sector reported export earnings of $5.5 billion dollars last year, making it a key pillar of the country’s economy.
The government has pledged to overhaul the fishing industry following the abuses, but as local Thai NGO Labor Rights Promotion Network (LPN) says, as many as one in 10 commercial fishermen in the region are victims of modern slavery.
Al Jazeera spoke with LPN and TMFG to understand the challenges in the industry:
According to Patima Tungpuchayakul, LPN director, one of the major logistical obstacles for regulators is the vast and complex supply chain in this sector.
“There are so many participants in this industry,” she says. “Many operators across the catching, processing and exporting links in the chain can mean the sector is very difficult to follow.”
The Thai Department of Fisheries lists 82 seafood processors approved for export alone. The LPN estimates that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 fishing boats supplying these processors.
[Chairat] as chairman of the TMFG, works to find, register and eventually release and repatriate slave fishermen.
The organisation estimates it has found and organised the release of around 4,000 slave fishermen since 2014. While they work through official channels, the work can be dangerous.
It’s not uncommon, for instance, for fishing companies to bribe local authorities, leaving the slave rescuers with no effective protection in isolated locations.
The Thai and Migrant Fishers Union Group (TMFG) has also developed a system for workers to make calls for help on their mobile phone while at sea without being detected. Chairat says the details of this scheme need to be kept secret in order to protect the fishermen.
He also has a message for consumers worried about buying seafood from Thailand.
“We don’t want to pressure consumers to stop buying seafood,” said Chairat.
“A boycott affects the fishermen too. The solution is that the workers have to have power. There has to be collective action.”
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