JAKARTA, Indonesia – An estimated 4,000 foreign fishermen are stranded on a number of remote islands in eastern Indonesia, including men revealed in an Associated Press investigation to have been enslaved, an aid group said.
Many of the migrant workers were abandoned by their boat captains following a government moratorium on foreign fishing that has docked vessels to crack down on illegal operators, said Steve Hamilton, deputy chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Indonesia.
“It is reasonable to expect many are victims of trafficking, if not outright slavery,” he said, adding the group has been working for years with Indonesian authorities to repatriate trafficked fishermen.
About a quarter of the men are in Benjina, a town that straddles two islands in the Maluku chain, according to an Indonesian official who recently visited the area.
The AP reported Wednesday that men were locked in a cage at a fishing company in Benjina. Journalists interviewed more than 40 migrant workers from Myanmar who said they had been brought to Indonesia from Thailand and forced to work on trawlers with Thai captains. Some are runaway slaves who have lived in the islands for five, 10 or even 20 years.
They described horrendous working conditions while at sea, saying they were forced to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing.
The yearlong AP investigation used satellites to track seafood caught by the slaves from a large refrigerated cargo ship in Benjina to Thailand, where reporters watched it being unloaded onto dozens of trucks over four nights. The lorries were then followed to a number of processing plants, cold storage operations and the country’s largest fish market. From there, U.S. Customs records were used to link the fish to the supply chains of some of America’s largest supermarkets and retailers.
The report prompted the U.S. government and major seafood industry leaders to renew their calls on the Thai government to crack down on slavery at sea and to punish those responsible. Thailand’s biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, announced that it immediately cut ties with a supplier after determining it might be involved with forced labour and other abuses.
Thai and Indonesian leaders have said they are investigating and will take action to end slavery.