BENJINA, Indonesia — Hundreds of fishermen raced to be rescued Friday from the isolated Indonesian island where an Associated Press investigation found that many were enslaved to catch seafood that could end up in the United States and elsewhere.
Indonesian officials probing labor abuses told the migrant workers they were allowing them to leave for another island by boat out of concern for their safety. More than 300 fishermen emerged from nearby trawlers, villages and even the jungle to make the trip.
“I will go see my parents,” said Win Win Ko, 42, smiling to reveal a mouth full of missing teeth. “They haven’t heard from me, and I haven’t heard from them since I left.”
He left impoverished Myanmar four years ago on the promise of getting a good job in neighboring Thailand, but like many others stranded in the island village of Benjina, he was instead duped into getting on a fishing boat that took him thousands of miles from home with no return. He said his four teeth were kicked out by a Thai boat captain’s military boots because he was not moving fish fast enough from the deck to the hold below.
The current and former slaves began getting news about the rescue as a downpour started, and some ran through the rain. They sprinted back to their boats, jumping over the rails and throwing themselves through windows. They stuffed their meager belongings into plastic bags and rushed back to the dock, not wanting to be left behind.
A small boat went from trawler to trawler picking up men who wanted to go and was soon loaded down with about 30 men.
The Indonesian delegation began interviewing men on boats and assessing the situation on the island this week. They have heard of the same abuses fishermen told the AP in a story published last week, which documented a company graveyard in Benjina and eight fishermen locked in a company cage.
The fishermen described being beaten, kicked and whipped with stingray tails and given Taser-like electric shocks. Some said they fell ill and were not given medicine; others said had been promised jobs in Thailand but were instead issued fake seafarer documents and taken to Indonesia, where they were made to work 20- to 22-hour days with no time off for little or zero pay. Their catch is then shipped back to Thailand, where it enters global markets, the AP story documented.
Initially, Indonesian officials told about 20 men from Myanmar, also known as Burma, that they could be moved from Benjina to neighboring Tual island for their safety following interviews with officials on Friday. However, as news spread that some were getting to leave the island, dozens of others started filing in from all over and sitting on the floor. An official was later asked if those hiding in the forest could come as well.
“They can all come,” said Asep Burhanuddin, director general of Indonesia’s Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance. “We don’t want to leave a single person behind.”
The delegation said security in Benjina is limited, with only two Indonesian navy officials stationed there. The men crowded onto seven trawlers and will be moved to Tual over 24 hours. They are to stay at a Fisheries Ministry compound until their identities can be verified.
“I expected to evacuate all of them, but I did not expect it this soon,” said Ida Kusuma, one of the leaders of the Fisheries Ministry delegation. “But I think it’s good.”
Kusuma said the next step is to coordinate with immigration and their countries of origin.
The International Organization for Migration said last week there could be as many as 4,000 foreign men, many trafficked or enslaved, who are stranded on islands surrounding Benjina following a fishing moratorium called by the Indonesian Fisheries Ministry to crack down on poaching. Indonesia has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, and the government estimates billions of dollars in seafood are stolen from its waters by foreign crews every year.
Many of those leaving Benjina on Friday were Burmese, but about 50 refused to go, saying they had not received their salaries and did not want leave without money. Another 50 from Cambodia came forward in a group ready to leave.
Officials from Myanmar will visit the islands next week to look for more men and start the process of sending them home.
Thai fishermen will not be transported because they are not seen as a security risk since most of the boat captains in Benjina are from Thailand, Burhanuddin said.
Officials from Thailand visited the island earlier this week, but their trip was focused on finding Thai nationals who had been trafficked. They denied mistreatment on the boats and said the crews were all Thai, which directly contradicted what the Indonesians and the AP found.
“We examined the boats and the crews, and the result is most of the crews are happy and a few of them are sick and willing to go home,” said Thai police Lt. Gen. Saritchai Anekwiang, who was leading the delegation. “Generally, the boat conditions are good.”
The yearlong AP investigation used satellites to track seafood caught by the slaves from a large refrigerated cargo ship in Benjina to Thailand. The investigation linked the seafood to supply chains of some of America’s largest supermarkets and retailers.
The report prompted the U.S. government and major seafood industry leaders to urge Thailand to end slavery at sea and to punish those responsible. Thailand’s biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, announced it was cutting ties with a supplier after determining it might be involved with forced labor and other abuses.
Police are investigating in Benjina and will decide whether to prosecute those involved, said Kedo Arya, head of Maluku province prosecutor’s office.
While excitement and relief flooded through many of the fishermen assembled on the dock, some carrying suitcases or small rucksacks, others looked scared and unsure of what to expect next.
“I’m really happy, but I’m confused,” said Nay Hla Win, 32. “I don’t know what my future is in Myanmar.”
Original AP investigation (March 25):
BENJINA, Indonesia — The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.
Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.
Here, in the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding waters, hundreds of trapped men represent one of the most desperate links criss-crossing between companies and countries in the seafood industry. This intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Your seafood may come from slaves.
The men The Associated Press spoke to on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was shipped back to Thailand, and then entered the global commerce stream.
Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America’s major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor, Sysco. It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.
In a year-long investigation, the AP interviewed more than 40 current and former slaves in Benjina. The AP documented the journey of a single large shipment of slave-caught seafood from the Indonesian village, including squid, snapper, grouper and shrimp, and tracked it by satellite to a gritty Thai harbor. Upon its arrival, AP journalists followed trucks that loaded and drove the seafood over four nights to dozens of factories, cold storage plants and the country’s biggest fish market.
Some fishermen, risking their lives, begged the reporters for help.
“I want to go home. We all do,” one Burmese slave called out over the side of his boat, a cry repeated by many men. “Our parents haven’t heard from us for a long time, I’m sure they think we are dead.”
Their catch mixes in with other fish at numerous sites in Thailand, including processing plants. U.S. Customs records show that several of those Thai factories ship to America. They also ship to Europe and Asia, but the AP traced shipments to the U.S., where trade records are public.
The major corporations identified by AP declined interviews but issued statements that strongly condemned labor abuses; many described their work with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.
National Fisheries Institute spokesman Gavin Gibbons, speaking on behalf of 300 U.S. seafood firms that make up 75 percent of the industry, said his members are troubled by the findings.
“It’s not only disturbing, it’s disheartening because our companies have zero tolerance for labor abuses,” he said. “These type of things flourish in the shadows.”
The slaves interviewed by the AP described 20- to 22-hour shifts and unclean drinking water. Almost all said they were kicked, beaten or whipped with toxic stingray tails if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing.
Runaway Hlaing Min said many died at sea.
“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea,” he said. “The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”
The small harbor in the village is occupied by Pusaka Benjina Resources, whose five-story office compound includes the cage with the slaves. The company is the only fishing operation on Benjina officially registered in Indonesia, and is listed as the owner of more than 90 trawlers. However, the captains are Thai, and the Indonesian government is reviewing to see if the boats are really Thai-owned. Pusaka Benjina did not respond to phone calls and a letter, and did not speak to a reporter who waited for two hours in the company’s Jakarta office.
At the Benjina port, the AP interviewed slaves from a dozen fishing vessels offloading their catch into a large refrigerated cargo ship, the Silver Sea Line.
The ship belonged to the Silver Sea Reefer Co., which is registered in Thailand and has at least nine refrigerated cargo boats. The company said it is not involved with the fishermen.
“We only carry the shipment and we are hired in general by clients,” said company owner Panya Luangsomboon. “We’re separated from the fishing boats.”
The AP followed that ship, using satellite tracking over 15 days to Samut Sakhon, Thailand, and journalists watched as workers packed the seafood over four nights onto more than 150 trucks, following deliveries to factories around the city.
Inside those plants, representatives told AP journalists that they sold seafood to other Thai processors and distributors. U.S. Customs bills of lading identify specific shipments from those plants to American firms, including well-known brand names.
For example, one truck bore the name and bird logo of Kingfisher Holdings Ltd., which supplies frozen and canned seafood around the world. Another truck went to Mahachai Marine Foods Co., a cold storage business that also supplies Kingfisher, according to Kawin Ngernanek, whose family runs it.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” said Kawin, who also serves as spokesman for the Thai Overseas Fisheries Association. “Kingfisher buys several types of products.”
When later asked about abusive labor practices, Kawin was not available. Instead, Mahachai Marine Foods manager Narongdet Prasertsri responded: “I have no idea about it at all.” Kingfisher did not answer repeated requests for comment.
Every month, Kingfisher and its subsidiary KF Foods Ltd. sends about 100 metric tons of seafood from Thailand to America, according to U.S. Customs records. These shipments have gone to Stavis Seafoods, a Boston-based Sysco supplier, and other distributors.
“The truth is, these are the kind of things that keep you up at night,” said CEO Richard Stavis, who grandfather started the company. He said his business visits international processors, requires notarized certification of legal practices and uses third-party audits.
“There are companies like ours that care and are working as hard as they can,” he said.
A similar pattern repeats itself with other companies and shipments.
The AP followed another truck to Niwat Co., where part owner Prasert Luangsomboon said the company sells to Thai Union Manufacturing. Weeks later, when confronted about forced labor in their supply chain, Niwat referred several requests for comment to Luangsomboon, who could not be reached for further comment.
Thai Union Manufacturing Co. is a subsidiary of Thai Union Frozen Products PCL, Thailand’s largest seafood corporation, with $3.5 billion in annual sales. This parent company, known simply as Thai Union, owns Chicken of the Sea and is buying Bumble Bee, although the AP did not observe any tuna fisheries.
Thai Union says its direct clients include Wal-Mart, and ships thousands of cans of cat food to the U.S. every month, including household brands like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. These end up on shelves of major grocery chains, such as Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons, as well as pet stores. Again, however, it’s impossible to tell if a particular can of cat food might have slave-caught seafood.
After the AP’s story was released Wednesday, the company issued a statement saying it had immediately terminated business ties with a supplier after determining it might be involved with forced labor and other abuses. It did not say which supplier.
“Thai Union embraces AP’s finding. It is utterly unacceptable,” it said. “This is to prove that Thai Union takes the issue of human rights violation extremely seriously.”
Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who has been cracking down on illegal foreign vessels, including those from Thailand, vowed to take swift action.
She tweeted the AP’s report and distributed copies of it in a meeting to a wide range of high-ranking government officials, including police, a high court judge, a prosecutor, the Navy and customs.
“I’m not going to tolerate such a thing to continue happening in our waters,” she said in an interview. She added that campaigns to save wildlife get far more attention than abuse involving humans at sea.
Illegal fishing is “killing people and nobody knows or cares about this for so long,” she said.
The enslaved fishermen on Benjina had no idea where the fish they caught was sold, only that it was too valuable for them to eat. Their desperation was palpable.
A crude cemetery holds more than 60 graves strangled by tall grasses and jungle vines. The small wooden markers are neatly labeled, some with the falsified names of slaves and boats. Only their friends remember where they were laid to rest.
In the past, former slave Hla Phyo said, supervisors on ships simply tossed bodies into the sea to be devoured by sharks. But after authorities and companies started demanding that every man be accounted for on the roster upon return, captains began stowing corpses alongside the fish in ship freezers until they arrived back in Benjina.
“I’m starting to feel like I will be in Indonesia forever,” said Phyo, wiping a tear away. “I remember thinking when I was digging, the only thing that awaits us here is death.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Associated Press notified the International Organization for Migration about men in this story, who were then moved out of Benjina by police for their safety. Hundreds of slaves remain on the island, and five other men were in the cage this week.