Is the Seafood You Eat Caught by Slaves?
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Martha Mendoza and Robin McDowell,
April 2016

The Associated Press dug into customs records and found U.S. recipients of slave labor seafood include Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway and others. As a result of the AP investigations, more than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been freed, more than a dozen alleged traffickers arrested, and millions of dollars’ worth of seafood and vessels seized.

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Is seafood on the menu tonight? Well, there’s a chance it might have been caught by a slave. That’s what the Associated Press uncovered when reporters traveled to the remote island of Benjina, Indonesia. They found workers trapped in cages, whipped with toxic stingray tails for punishment, and forced to work 22 hours a day for almost no compensation. We speak to two of the Associated Press reporters who broke this remarkable story, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza. We caught up with them last week in Los Angeles just before they headed to the University of Southern California to receive the 2016 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for this remarkable series. Meet the Pulitzer favorites who broke open a global scandal...

Watch the Democracy Now interview here.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road in San Francisco. Is seafood on the menu tonight? Well, there’s a chance it might have been caught by a slave. That’s what the Associated Press uncovered when reporters traveled to the remote island of Benjina in Indonesia. They found workers trapped in cages, whipped with toxic stingray tails for punishment, and forced to work 22 hours a day for almost no compensation. The video is part of the AP’s groundbreaking report on slave labor in the seafood industry. Listen.

NARRATOR: Some of the slaves are kept in cramped cages, sitting on concrete floors. Flies buzz around the rusty bars that imprison them. Kyaw Naing just wants to go home.

KYAW NAING: [translated] I am not fed enough, as well. I feel so sorry it’s not only me. It’s everyone that people are sad.

NARRATOR: Another man says he was shipped here with fake documents against his will.

MAUNG SOE: [translated] They tricked me. They lied to me and put me on the boat.

NARRATOR: They are two of potentially hundreds of modern slaves in Indonesia forced to work boats that supply fish that can taint an export supply chain of products sold in the United States. They’re forced to work at times 22-hour days, with no days off and little or no pay. Some claim there are beatings. At times, men die.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the AP, some of the seafood caught by slave laborers winds up in American grocery stores, restaurants, even cat food. The AP dug into customs records and found U.S. recipients of slave labor seafood include Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway and others. As a result of the AP investigations, more than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been freed, more than a dozen alleged traffickers arrested, and millions of dollars’ worth of seafood and vessels seized. This is the story of one of the freed men, Myint Naing.

NARRATOR: This is the homecoming freed slave Myint Naing has been waiting for all his adult life. Tricked into becoming a slave on a fishing boat as a teenager, he hasn’t seen his family in Myanmar for 22 years—until now. That’s his sister, who was just 10 when they last saw each other. Moments later, he sees his mother. The emotions are overwhelming. For his mother, it is too much. She collapses and has to be revived.

MYINT NAING: [translated] I’m so very, very happy that I’m able to see my mother and my own siblings again. Unendingly happy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Democracy Now! recently spoke to two of the reporters who broke this remarkable story. Robin McDowell is the Associated Press Burma correspondent. Martha Mendoza is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press national writer. We caught up with them in Los Angeles on our 100-city tour just before they headed to the University of Southern California to receive the 2016 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for this remarkable series. It’s also a contender for the Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced today at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time. I began by asking Robin McDowell how she discovered this slave island in Indonesia.

ROBIN McDOWELL: I had been living in Southeast Asia for nearly two decades, together with colleague Margie Mason. And we had been hearing for years, as many had, about the use of forced labor on fishing trawlers in the Thai fleets. It was something that was reported largely, at that point, through people who had been either rescued or had run away off of ships. No one had actually spoken to men who were on boats or captive on the islands, as we had found. So, the goal from the very beginning was to find a way to find people who were actually captive slaves, to trace that fish back to the American dinner table and, most importantly, to name names.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you do it?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Well, it took about a year of networking, talking—you know, scrolling the internet, going through documents. And it really was—everyplace that we went, people told us, basically, "Yes, others have tried this. It’s nearly impossible." Documents are regularly falsified. People lie. There is trans-shipment on reefer ships, you know, so, in other words, clean fish, fish that is caught legally, is mixed together with slave-caught fish. At the auction markets in the Thai port town, fish is bought by, you know, companies that don’t know—at that point, there’s absolutely no trace of what fish has been caught by forced labor and what fish has not. So, it was really something that was so murky, we had to get it little piece by piece. And we really didn’t know what we had, until we were told that there were some men who had been abandoned on islands in Indonesia. And so, it was basically going there and finding it and hearing their stories that they tell.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us what exactly you found there.

ROBIN McDOWELL: Well, initially, on arriving on the island, it looked like a huge fishing company. Things didn’t go quickly. We didn’t find immediately—or we didn’t realize immediately this was an island of slaves, that this was slave labor.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Benjina, Indonesia?

ROBIN McDOWELL: This is Benjina, yes. The village of Benjina is on one side of a large canal. About 200 meters away is the other part of the island. And that’s where the factory was, with the boats, the fishing trawlers, the men. So, for the first day or two, it was mostly looking across that waterway, trying to figure out how are we going to find out really what’s going on here. Initially, the first clues came from the brothels on the side of the village, which, it turned out, on speaking to them, that they were servicing mostly Burmese fishermen, and they said dozens, maybe hundreds. So that was when we really got a sense, OK, this is—this is a big operation.

It wasn’t until two or three days later, when I was able to get in touch with our Burmese colleague, Esther Htusan, who is also a member of the team, and she embarked on a 30-hour journey by boat, by plane, and arrived on the island. When those men saw her and for the first time saw a Burmese compatriot and she told them, "We’re here to tell your story," they just could not wait to talk. They took tremendous risks. They would chase us down pathways, kind of jamming paper into her hands, saying, "Please, tell our family that we’re alive," telling horrific stories, much worse than we had been hearing from others in Thailand on the—you know, where most of the abuses had been reported up until then.

AMY GOODMAN: You found men in cages?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Yes, we did. We knew—actually, before we got there, we saw, on the day before we arrived, a picture of a man in a cage. So we knew that was really the goal at that moment. There was—we knew there was someplace near the factory grounds that men were being held. And we told our photographer and our videographer, "This is the goal for you. You need to prove that this is happening." And when they found it, it was something that the company was not even ashamed of. They showed them—they showed the videographer and the photographer as what was supposed to be a tour of "this is our fishing industry." It had been going on for such a long time. They had been operating with impunity. They had no fear at that moment, in the early—when they didn’t—before they realized we were doing an investigation. They just kind of like skirted them near this cage, which was basically a company jail with concrete floors. And, you know, they’d go to the bathroom inside this makeshift prison. And so, they got a couple of glimpses with the camera, before they were kind of ushered away.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin McDowell, how did these men get enslaved?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Well, it has a lot to do with poverty. In the case of Myanmar, many of them were recruited during the days of dictatorship. There were no jobs in their villages. And they went to Thailand in search of work, usually with the help of a broker or agent, who would tell them, "OK, there’s a job for you I have. I have something in a plantation or a clothing factory." Once they got there, once they got to Thailand, they were often tricked, sometimes kidnapped, sometimes drugged and brought to, you know, rooms or buildings, where they would be held until they could get enough fishermen, and then put on those boats. But—

AMY GOODMAN: Is it usually men?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Yes. It’s always men.


ROBIN McDOWELL: I think they’re very good—they’re better workers. They’re stronger. It’s a very labor-intensive job. They’re really working 22 hours straight—22 hours a day, sometimes longer, depending on how many—you know, if it’s high season or low season. I think most of them cannot tolerate it. It would be very hard for a woman to, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how this investigation unfolded. Had you intended to do this long series on, well, perhaps the fish you buy may have been caught by slaves?

MARTHA MENDOZA: We definitely intended to find men who were captive and track their product back and figure out where it went. But then, once that story broke, the authorities went back to Benjina, and something happened that never happens in journalism: They began freeing these men. Robin was there on that day. And it was—it was like an exodus. It was unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin, explain that moment to us. When was it?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Nine days after the story was published, the Indonesian government wanted to go to the island to investigate on their own. And they went, and they brought us with them. And they started interviewing the company site manager, financial chief and others. And, you know, we told—and through a translator, they took aside about 20 Burmese fishermen and started interviewing them and asking them about their experiences at sea. And they were horrified by what they were hearing. Not only were they hearing about abusive captains in the waters, but also beatings when they returned to land. So, because the Thai captains could not actually beat them on Indonesian soil, they would hire someone that they called the enforcer, and they would bring them up and march them to the top of a hill near a flagpole with an Indonesian flag hanging up, handcuff them and beat them until they couldn’t stand anymore, and then, in some cases, put them in a little hut up there for a month or two at a time.

AMY GOODMAN: What would they gain by beating them like this?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Intimidation. In this case, it was often people who they saw as troublemakers, people who were threatening to run away or demanding to come home—to go home.

AMY GOODMAN: Some were whipped by stingrays?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Yes, that’s right.


ROBIN McDOWELL: Well, it was the tail of the stingray, and it gives a little shock. So, not only does it break the skin, it kind of numbs the skin and gives it—it adds to the pain and adds to the misery, basically. It’s a form of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: So, when the men were released, the moment, what was that scene?

ROBIN McDOWELL: So, the officials were speaking to about 20 men. And when they realized it would be dangerous to leave the island and have those men be with their abusers, they told them, "OK. We’re going to bring you home. We’re not leaving you here. It’s not safe." And I asked them at that time, "Wait. Do you mean these 20 guys or everybody?" And they said, "Everybody. We can’t take them." And I think at that moment they did not realize quite how many men were on that island, because first it was the 20, and then, as word started to spread in the surrounding—in the surrounding hills and the woods, that people were going to get to go home, more and more people came out. And pretty soon, there were like 50, 100, 200, 300. And everybody, as soon as they realized, OK, you’re going home tonight, they start running to their boat, and they would just leap over the rails of the boat and through the windows and grab at their belongings, you know, whatever they could find—their shirts, their toothbrush—jam them in plastic bags and then run back to be counted. It was really—it was really remarkable, remarkable scene.

AMY GOODMAN: And did you hear from them once they went home? They hadn’t seen family members sometime in how long?

ROBIN McDOWELL: Well, the longest that we found, that our colleague Margie Mason found, was 22 years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to one among those kept in cages on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina. He was one of the migrant fishermen rescued during the Associated Press investigation into slavery in the seafood industry. Let’s go to an excerpt of an AP report.

NARRATOR: It was a day Kyaw Naing feared would never happen, reunited with his brother in the small village he left years ago. Just days earlier, Kyaw Naing and seven other men flew home to Myanmar, after years of being used as slaves on Thai fishing boats.

KYAW NAING: [translated] I’m so happy. There are no words to describe my happiness.

NARRATOR: Late last year, Kyaw Naing was discovered by the Associated Press in the remote Indonesian village of Benjina. He spoke of his life as a slave from behind the bars of a rusty cage. He had been locked up for asking to go home, because he could no longer lift the heavy nets to pull in the lucrative catch.

KYAW NAING: [translated] There were people who died on the boat. What I want to say is the priority was pulling out the fish. And because the owners wanted fish, they had to give their lives. For the owners, the fish were more valuable than us.

AMY GOODMAN: Kyaw Naing’s return home to his native Burma. How many slaves were freed as a result of the AP investigation? Do you know, Robin?

ROBIN McDOWELL: There were more than 2,000.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many still exist today, enslaved?

ROBIN McDOWELL: We believe most of those who were on the islands in eastern Indonesia are now home.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you track the boats? Talk about the technology you used.

ROBIN McDOWELL: Well, we tracked several boats. The boat that we actually tracked from Benjina to the Thai port town of Samut Sakhon was done with a satellite tracker that was on the boat already. And this is something that most boats have. When they’re on international waters, they’re obligated to turn them on. They did not realize, obviously, that we were tracking them. So, we were aware of this boat and these companies, and had been kind of watching them on the internet beforehand. We knew what the process was. But after we saw the fish being loaded onto these refrigerated cargo ships—one, in particular, Silver Sea Line—we watched that and tracked it, the three of us, basically, as it crossed a 15-day journey to the Thai port town of Samut Sakhon.

MARTHA MENDOZA: When we found out that boats had fled from the island with more slaves on board, Robin began really pressuring me to find the boats. And we asked a satellite company if they could task a camera on a region above Papua New Guinea and take a large photo and try to actually find the boats. And they did. They found more boats. And the authorities—

AMY GOODMAN: And they could also find them because of these trackers on them?

MARTHA MENDOZA: Nope. OK, so these second batch of boats that had fled Benjina didn’t have trackers on them, but some men had escaped, and some of the owners of these boats had also gotten fishing licenses in a fishery area near Papua New Guinea. So we had an idea of a 500-square-mile region that might have them in them. They—DigitalGlobe, a company out of Boulder, tasked their cameras; a satellite passed over, shot a huge swath of ocean. And when they zoomed in, we were—saw more boats that looked like ours. We shared these photos with some of the escaped slaves and freed slaves, who confirmed those were the boats. And the military, the navy moved in and seized them, and more slaves were freed, and more people were arrested.

For more, read An AP investigation helps free slaves in the 21st century.

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