BENJINA, Indonesia – For the past year, The Associated Press has investigated slave labor in Thailand's $7 billion seafood export industry, resulting in the freeing of more than 2,000 fishermen. This week, the AP came out with another investigation looking at slavery in shrimp processing sheds in Thailand. This is the story of one of those victims:
Kyaw Naing just wanted to stop fishing. As a slave stuck on a Thai trawler in Indonesian waters for three years, he had been forced to work shifts of 20 or more hours, seven days a week. Every day he wrangled the monstrous nets filled with mackerel, black tiger shrimp and other species, in exchange for a few handfuls of rice and the parts of fish deemed undesirable for the lucrative seafood export business to the United States and elsewhere. If he was lucky, he was also paid $100 a month. If not, he was whipped with the biting, toxic tail of a stingray.
An agent had coaxed him to leave his impoverished village in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta by promising a good job across the border in Thailand. He was taken to the gritty port of Samut Sakhon and put on a boat bound for a small, remote Indonesian island village called Benjina.
About a year ago, he decided he'd had enough and told his boss he wasn't going back to sea. The captain said he had to keep working because Kyaw Naing still owed money: the money that had been paid to the agent who tricked him.
"All I did was tell the captain I wanted to go home," the 30-year-old said, his dark, sad eyes pleading through the rusty bars of a fishing-company jail cell into an AP video camera sneaked in by another slave. "The next time we docked," he said, "I was locked up."
Kyaw Naing sat cross-legged on the concrete floor and sweated in the cramped, humid space he shared with seven other slaves, only slightly larger than a king-size bed. He said he was threatened with beatings during his six weeks in the jail and given only small bags of plain rice to eat each day. He passed the time by making simple necklaces out of black beads whittled down from stone.
He said his hopelessness was shared not only by his fellow cellmates, but by other fishermen on the docks and the trawlers. "It's everyone. We all feel so sad."
Kyaw Naing is among more than 2,000 slave fishermen who have been freed since March, when The Associated Press published stories about their plight. The reports also have led to a dozen arrests, millions of dollars' worth of seizures and proposals for new federal laws.
Kyaw Naing is now back in his home village in Myanmar, working as a barber. His friend Win Ko Naing, another former Benjina slave, said from Yangon that Kyaw Naing was among the fishermen who traveled to Indonesia to testify against their captains.