Are You Eating Fish Caught By Slaves?

According to sociologist Kevin Bales, who founded and directs the new abolition group Free the Slaves, an estimated 27 million people are enslaved around the world today—more than were ever enslaved at any single time in history. The United Nation's International Labour Organization estimates are a more modest 12.3 million—which is still a shocking number of people forced to labor against their will, unable to walk away, for no compensation. Much of the reporting on this phenomenon has been on women forced to work in the sex trades. But the U.S. State Department reports that many more people are enslaved in far more ordinary endeavors: mining coltrane, growing cotton, domestic servitude, and fishing in the south Pacific. 

Ben Skinner, whom I'm honored to call my colleague at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, is the foremost reporter on the particulars of this horror. His book A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Slavery, offered an in-depth look at both the slave trade itself and at the internal U.S. government politics that aims to curb and sanction that trade.

Last week, Skinner published his article "Fishing as Slaves on the High Seas" in Bloomberg Businessweek. The piece comes after nearly a year of in-depth investigation of the issue. His story circles out from a South Korean-flagged ship whose fishermen were solicited and contracted by Indonesian recruiters, and which sailed out of New Zealand. The contract was coercive—and the conditions abusive:

In addition to the agent’s commission [of $225], Yusril would surrender 30 percent of his salary, which IMS would hold unless the work was completed. He would be paid nothing for the first three months, and if the job was not completed to the fishing company’s satisfaction, Yusril would be sent home and charged over $1000 for the airfare. “Satisfactory” completion was left vague. The contract only stated that Yusril would have to work whatever hours the boat operators demanded.

The last line of the contract, in bold, warned that Yusril’s family would owe nearly $3,500 if he were to run away from the ship. The amount was greater than his net worth, and he had earlier submitted title to his land as collateral for that bond. Additionally, he had provided IMS with names and addresses of his family members. He was locked in.

What followed, according to Yusril and several shipmates who corroborated his story, was an eight-month ordeal aboard the Melilla 203, during which Indonesian fisherman were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the ship’s operators. Their overlords told them not to complain or fight back, or they would be sent home, where the agents would take their due. Finally, Yusril and 23 others walked off in protest when the trawler docked in Lyttleton, New Zealand. The men have seen little if any of the money they say is owed them for their work. 

Just as impressive as Skinner's investigation into the particulars of the fisherman's predication is his outline of the supply chain by which the fish that Yusni and his fellows arrived on plates around the world.

The amazing article examines exactly how these Indonesians were lured into bondage, assaulted and abused in international waters, and of how no government has been willing or able to help them or punish their malefactors. Skinner establishes, step by step, how the New Zealand-based wholesaler that purchased that ship's catch sells to such retailers as Costco, Whole Foods, and Sam's Club.

Last year, The New Yorker ran Sarah Stillman's article "The Invisible Army," which looked into similar bondage by subcontractors who supplied labor to  U.S. military bases. Responses to that article tended to focus on the fact that the U.S. military was involved. But not all malfeasance involves government money. World corporations govern the lives of millions of people. When slavery and extreme labor exploitation takes place outside a particular government's reach—in international waters, say—who can be held accountable? When layer after layer of supplier, wholesaler, and retailer separates us from that slavery, what corporation can we ask to dig more deeply into protecting the poorest and most vulnerable workers? 

The slavery that Skinner reports on may not have been paid for, directly or indirectly, by taxpayer dollars. But surely we care, as consumers, as moral beings, and as citizens of the world, that someone, somewhere, is having his life destroyed so that we can eat inexpensive fish.

The Schuster Institute has a host of other information about slavery in your seafood. I deeply hope that this article—and issue—will get the attention it deserves. 

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