Burmese baited into Thai fishing industry – The Irrawaddy



As the United Nations human trafficking representative begins her mission in Thailand, The Irrawaddy hears from Burmese trafficked into Thailand’s notorious fishing industry.

Burmese trafficking victim in Samut Sakhon shows scar from abuse inflicted at sea (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand – “The broker took 36,000 baht (US$1207) from us”, says Ma Than Nwe, a Tavoyan Burmese migrant worker in Thailand. “It was money that should have been paid to my husband”, she laments.

Her spouse Kyaw spent six months at sea on a Thai-run fishing vessel and the salary, which might seem a pittance to some, is a small fortune for people who earned the equivalent of US$1-2 per day in Burma. Or it would be, if it was paid at all. The promised 6000 baht per month was paid to a broker, a Burmese woman who cannot be named at this time for legal reasons. She kept the all money as payment for what Ma Than new – with understandable anger – sarcastically-describes as the broker’s “services” in helping her husband “find work” on the boat.

The broker and alleged trafficker and extortionist has since fled back to Burma. “We were afraid to do anything, as the police and the brokers work together to get money from us”, Ma Than Nwe says. “But we think she has angered some other people as well”, she adds, speculating on the broker’s apparent flight from Thailand.

The broker told the couple that Kyaw would only have to work two months onboard to clear the broker’s fee. Anything else after that, if he chose to stay onboard for longer, would be his. However he was kept onboard for six months against his will and emerged without a satang.

“The boat did not come to shore during all that time”, says Ma Than Nwe. “When he got back, he told me how small boats would come to meet them at sea and take the catch to land, so they did not get to come onshore themselves.”

Such tales of deceit, naivete and brutality are legion in Thailand’s fishing industry, and in the coastal province of Samut Sakhon – perhaps better-known by its old name Mahachai – a forty minute drive west of capital Bangkok. Both sector and location have long been a draw for immigrants from neighbouring countries seeking work away from their own sluggish economies.

Today United Nations Special Rapporteur (SR) on trafficking in persons Joy Ngozi Ezeilo begins an official visit to Thailand today, to examine the impact of anti-trafficking measures in the country. She will be in Thailand until August 19 and will visit Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Mae Sot, Samut Sakhon and Songkhla, where she will likely hear stories such as that of Ma Than Nwe and her husband.

“During my mission, I wish to reach out to a wide range of stakeholders and trafficked persons themselves, so that their voices are heard and can be considered in the national laws, policies and measures related to trafficking in persons”, she said.

The SR will have to convince Thai authorities to do more to enforce anti-trafficking laws, as – according to the recent US State Dept assessment of global human trafficking – Thailand has “made mixed progress in its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts”.

According to the US report, the Thai government “reported 18 convictions in trafficking-related cases in 2010 – an increase from eight known convictions during the previous year; as of May 2011, only five of the 18 convictions reported by the government could be confirmed to be for trafficking offenses.”

However, as the report later outlines, the fishing industry and its locales remain at the margins of even this relatively-small conviction rate. According to the report, “investigations of alleged human trafficking on Thai fishing boats, as well as inspections of these boats, were practically nonexistent, according to surveyed fisherman, NGOs, and government officials.”

Ma Than Nwe herself was trafficked, forced to work at shrimp factory in Samut Sakhon for a 200 baht day rate. Like her husband, she never saw any of this money, as it was given directly by the employer to a second broker she met in Hatyai, in southern Thailand. She agreed to travel to the fishing hub near Bangkok town after being promised 5-600 baht per day making and selling Burmese food by the broker she met in Hatyai, where she had first headed for after crossing the Thailand-Burma frontier at Ranong in March 2010.

The irony is she worked in the fishery sector in Burma, where times were tough, prompting her to make the initial risky crossing to Thailand, minus official papers. “We sold shrimp at Tavoy”, she recalls, “but we could not make a living doing so. The cost of running the business was more than the sale price.”

Life in Samut Sakhon was much tougher than she was led to believe. “We were put in a place with no water or electricity”, she says of her accommodation. “We had to work off the 3000 baht fee the broker in Hatyai demanded for setting us up here”.

Her family’s debts were accumulating at this stage, with the Hatyai broker the second one she had to pay off, after the first one who brought the group from the Ranong border crossing to Hatyai. Her husband then took the job on the fishing boat to try bring in what they thought would be more money.

Ma Than Nwe’s ordeal was not just emotional. Discussing how she lived while Kyaw was away at sea, she reveals another mark, this one physical. “I had an operation”, she says, pointing to her abdomen but refusing to say what the procedure entailed.

“I had no money to pay for the hospital costs”, she says. “So this became extra fees to the broker”.

Perhaps it was fear of incurring more debt , but while her husband was away, she took what might have been a fatal post-operative step. “I took a knife and cut out the stitches myself”, she says, grimacing as she re-enacted her self-administered procedure using hand gestures.

Now working – and finally getting paid – as a cleaner at a factory, Ma Than Nwe takes painkillers every day now. Seven months later, she is not sure if she has caused long-term damage to herself. “I don’t speak Thai, I can just nod my head when they talk to me. And I don’t have money, so cannot go to the doctor.”

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