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Slavery at Sea

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THAI FISHING SLAVERY
AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File

It can be easy to fool ourselves into believing that slavery, while repugnant, has nothing to do with our own lives, that it has been either eradicated from all but the most remote places on Earth or limited to criminal activities like sex trafficking.

But the reality, as recent shocking reports have again highlighted, is that slavery touches us all, no matter where we live or how law-abiding we are. It is found in the clothes we wear, the products we buy and the food we eat.

This has been underlined in the last few weeks by a series of powerful investigations into the horrors of the Thai fishing industry, a $7-billion business that provides seafood sold in major stores such as Walmart, Costco and Tesco across North America and Europe. They have documented in terrible detail the widespread use of forced labor on fishing boats and the inhumane treatment of crew from neighboring countries like Cambodia and Myanmar.

The investigation found that thousands of men and boys are sold by traffickers to those operating Thai fishing fleets. They are forced to work, for little or no pay, on boats that can remain at sea for up to two years at a time.

During these long periods, when supplies are taken on and fish unloaded far out to sea, the crew can be forced to work for 20 hours a day. Conditions are dangerous, the medical treatment nonexistent, and the men suffer constant abuse, violence and even worse.

These latest investigations confirmed the findings of a survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in 2009 that murder was commonplace. Over half of those working against their will who were questioned by the UN project had witnessed the deliberate killing of a fellow worker at sea. Life is seemingly disposable to enable us to buy and enjoy cheap seafood in our homes.

These terrible crimes should shake us all out of our complacency. Slavery is illegal in every country -- including in Thailand -- but exists in every society and many industries. Modern slaves are found not just in fishing fleets and brothels but in sweat shops, mines, cotton fields, and farms and plantations of countries across the world. It comes in different forms, but the heart of slavery is always the loss of liberty through violence or fear for commercial or personal gain.

The scale and the profits are enormous. A report from the ILO last month estimated that there are at least 21 million men, women and children who are slaves today and whose labor generates $150 billion in annual profits for the criminals behind this horror. The Global Slavery Index published last year put the figure even higher, at 30 million people trapped in slavery.

And, of course, the damaging impact of slavery goes far beyond terrible individual suffering. It corrodes our societies and encourages many other types of wrongdoing and bad practices. Corruption and slavery go hand-in-hand. Fishing boats that enslave their crews don't hesitate to fish illegally and unsustainably. Ending slavery in the Thai fishing industry will also help protect our oceans.

Rooting out slavery sets challenges for us all -- for governments, for companies and for consumers. The Thai government is making efforts to crack down on the traffickers in its fishing industry, but much more needs to be done, including robust regulation and inspections of the fishing fleet. There remains evidence of widespread collusion between the authorities and traffickers, which is undermining these efforts.

We also need to step up protection for vulnerable Myanmar and Cambodian migrants. This must include funding local awareness campaigns to prevent them being tricked into slavery, coupled with extra support for community organizations working in the Thai ports to help and rehabilitate slaves who escape their captors.

Business and consumers have a key role to play in stamping out this crime. It is deeply disturbing that companies supplying seafood to major supermarkets chains are said to take catches from the fleets using slave labor. They must drive change by insisting on greater transparency and traceability in seafood supply chains, backed up by robust audits. Consumers must shout loud and clear that they don't want slave-fished seafood and demand that U.S. and European businesses help end this shameful scandal.

What we must not do is throw up our hands in despair and believe that modern slavery is too widespread and deeply entrenched to be eradicated, for the evidence shows that concerted, targeted action can make a big difference. We must put in the effort and investment to support and expand these successful initiatives. Slavery is morally repugnant and illegal everywhere. By shining a light on this age-old crime, we can sweep it into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.