Deadliest catch: Slave labour on the seas

Deadliest catch: Slave labour on the seas
Fishing boats moored off Ranong, southern Thailand. It is on boats like these that trafficked labourers spend months or years at sea, with little sleep and no pay. Survivors claim to have seen fellow workers murdered if they tried to escape. Many also allege official collusion.

THAILAND - Mr Win Maung (not his real name) was one of the thousands of Myanmar nationals who cross illegally into Thailand every year to find work.

Working on construction sites and fishing boats in the border province of Ranong, he earned up to 5,000 baht (S$198) a month while dodging Thai officials.

One day, he got a call. The man on the line asked if he wanted to earn 6,000 baht a month working on a construction site in the neighbouring province of Surat Thani.

Yes, he said.

After an overnight car ride with five other illegals, he arrived at the compound of an old warehouse, and was promptly surrounded by 10 people, some with guns.

In the pre-dawn confusion, this much was clear: They were not on a building site, nor in Surat Thani. They were marched onto a waiting fishing trawler, which promptly set off to sea.

It would be another three years before Mr Win Maung, 29, would see land again.

Thailand was the world's third-largest exporter of fish and fishery products in 2010, the latest ranking available. Exports last year crossed 240 billion baht (S$9.5 billion), of which Singapore imported more than S$80 million worth.

Over the years, however, faced with a shrinking pool of manual labourers, Thailand's seafood industry has increasingly depended on migrants to shell prawns, process seafood products and man fishing trawlers out in the open sea.

Thai fishing trawlers ply the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, and also venture into international waters. But the isolation, relentless pace and harsh conditions on these boats have meant that even Cambodians and Myanmar nationals are increasingly shunning such jobs, creating demand for forced labour.

According to Sunday Times interviews and reports by the international aid agencies, the trafficked fishermen typically spend months or even years out at sea, and are paid little or nothing for their labour.

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