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Migrant workers repair a net on a Thai fishing boat in Thailand’s Rayong province. Thousands of Cambodians board similar boats every day, but many are slaves forced to work in grueling conditions. Nicolas Asfouri/Afp
Migrant workers repair a net on a Thai fishing boat in Thailand’s Rayong province. Thousands of Cambodians board similar boats every day, but many are slaves forced to work in grueling conditions. Nicolas Asfouri/Afp

Practices ‘victimise trafficked fishers’

Greenpeace has called for a permanent end to the dangerous practice of “transshipping”, which contributed to fatal cases of beriberi on a Thai fishing vessel crewed by trafficked Cambodian men earlier this year.

Based on a 12-month investigation and released last Thursday, Greenpeace’s Turn the Tide report found that “tainted fish” caught by victims of forced labour had entered into global supply chains and that vessels were intentionally shifting to more remote waters to avoid regulation.

Interviews with six Cambodian crew members from the Sor Somboon 19, which had been at sea continuously for nine months, revealed that “of a total crew of 30, all had contracted beriberi with five fatalities resulting from the disease”.

The survivors explained that supplies of meat and vegetables would be transshipped to their boat off of the Saya de Malha Bank, a remote underwater ridge, by refrigerated shipping containers every three months. However, the supplies would dwindle within 20 days, leaving them a diet of white rice and fish, causing a deficiency in Vitamin B1.

“An official [Thai] Government investigation … concluded that the men had died of heart failure – at its root caused by poor nutrition, overwork and long periods without return to port, enabled by transshipping at sea,” the report read.

Using April interviews with 15 Cambodians rescued from another Thai fishing ship, the report details how the men were deceived into debt bondage.

“For the men working aboard these Saya de Malha Bank gillnetters, the fact that they were catching high-value commercial species had very little impact on their conditions of work, which resembled trafficking for forced labour situations typical of the Thai fishing industry,” the report read.

The report comes at the same time as a study on exploitation, violence and health risks faced by men and boys who had been trafficked, the majority of them Cambodian fisherman, authored by Nicola Pocock, a PhD candidate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Pocock’s study surveyed 446 males aged 10 to 58 in the Mekong sub-region, more than 60 percent of whom were trafficked for fishing, with about 20 percent forced to work in factories. Almost 80 percent of trafficked fishermen were Cambodian, and well over a third spent more than two years trapped in their trafficking situation, where they worked an average of almost 19 hours a day.

More than half of the fishermen experienced severe violence – which included being kicked, beaten, chained, choked or burned, having a dog released to bite or scratch, being threatened with a weapon or shot and being forced to have sex. Only one in 10 factory workers reported similar abuse, Pocock said.

Six fisherman lost limbs and received no medical attention.

“While fishing is an industry with substantial risk of injury, the trafficking survivors in our sample appear to have higher injury rates than a population of fishermen surveyed in Thai ports,” the report read.

“Some of our findings contradict our original hypotheses. Men who received their wages had greater odds of injury; having documents does not appear to be protective for injuries or violence.”

For Pocock, the findings speak to wider problems across ASEAN about how migrant workers are viewed.

Referring to NGO reports on trafficking at sea, Pocock said employers using trafficked men far from shore “can get away with anything, including murder, on these boats".

"What needs addressing is attitudes towards migrants, viewing them with dignity and respect," she said.

Referencing the Greenpeace report, Pocock said beriberi was “a vitamin B1 deficiency that we only see in the most marginalised populations in modern day times” and added that transshipment, if not monitored properly, could "effectively create floating prisons, as some [ships] don’t dock for months".

Moeun Tola, executive director of labour rights NGO Central, said the lack of opportunity in Cambodia pushed people into seeking work abroad, making them vulnerable to trafficking.

“The fishing industry is the source of most concern for us . . . when the boat moves into the sea, it is completely isolated from the world, so there is no proper inspection or access to health care,” he said.

“I feel the way the government is sending people to Thailand or Malaysia, it’s just a way of dumping people over there,” he said, adding the memoranda of understanding with those countries were “very vague” and did not legally bind them to enforce standards and prevent exploitation.

“The government should have a clear mechanism to monitor the condition of the people,” he said.

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

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