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The Outlaw Ocean Episode 3: Slavery Is Not Gone - It's At Sea

Cambodian fisherman aboard a Thai fishing vessel undergoing an inspection.
A Cambodian worker on a Thai fishing ship during an inspection in Thailand. Credit: Fábio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project

Published Oct 10, 2022 2:17 PM by Ian Urbina

While forced labor exists throughout the world, one place where it’s especially pervasive is the South China Sea, and especially in the Thai fishing fleet. Partly this is because in a typical year, this country’s fishing industry is short about fifty thousand mariners, according to the UN in 2014. As a result, tens of thousands of migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are whisked into Thailand each year to make up this chronic shortfall. Then, unscrupulous captains buy and sell the men and boys like chattel.

With rising fuel prices and fewer fish close to shore, maritime labor researchers predict that more boats will resort to venturing farther out to sea, making the mistreatment of migrants more likely. The work is brutal. And in this bloated, inefficient, and barely profitable national fleet, captains require crew members to simply do what they were told, when they were told. No complaints, no matter how long the hours, how little the food, or how paltry the pay. In short, these captains rely on sea slaves.

The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington D.C, got onboard a Thai distant-water vessel using enslaved labor. There, three dozen Cambodian boys and men worked barefoot all day and into the night on the deck of a purse seiner fishing ship. 

The third episode of the podcast series The Outlaw Ocean, from CBC Podcasts and the L.A. Times, tells the harrowing stories of sea slavery. Listen to it here:

Rain or shine, shifts ran eighteen to twenty hours. At night, the crew cast their nets when the small silver fish they target—mostly jack mackerel and herring—were more reflective and easier to spot in darker waters. During the day, when the sun was high, temperatures topped a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, but they worked nonstop. Drinking water was tightly rationed. If they were not fishing, the crew sorted their catch and fixed their nets, which were prone to ripping. One boy, his shirt smudged with fish guts, proudly showed off his missing two fingers, severed by a net that had coiled around a spinning crank. Their hands, which virtually never fully dried, had open wounds, slit from fish scales and torn from the nets’ friction. Infections were constant. Captains never lacked amphetamines to help the crews work longer, but they rarely stocked antibiotics for infected wounds. 

On boats like these, deckhands were often beaten for small transgressions, like fixing a torn net too slowly or mistakenly placing a mackerel into a bucket for sablefish. Dispatched into the unknown, they were beyond where society could help them, usually on so-called ghost ships—unregistered vessels that the Thai government had no ability to track. They typically did not speak the language of their Thai captains, did not know how to swim, and, being from inland villages, had never seen the sea before.

Virtually all of the crew had a debt to clear, part of their indentured servitude, a “travel now, pay later” labor system that requires working to pay off money they often had to borrow to sneak illegally into a new country. The debt just becomes more elusive once they leave land. 

There is this modern assumption, especially in the West, that we got rid of slavery. But debt bondage is still very much present. Like the Cambodian boys held captive, killed if they try to escape. This is what modern day slavery looks like. And until we modernize our understanding of that, we won't know how to identify it, much less do anything about it.

Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC that focuses on environmental and human rights concerns at sea globally.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.