In the South China Sea, the Thai fishing fleets face a shortage of 50,000 workers annually. Jobs that, in an economy with less than a 1% unemployment rate, would go unfilled if it weren't for human trafficking.
Workers find themselves on these boats after a number of horrific but common situations: a trafficker promises work in construction or another trade once across the border, a debt incurred at a local bar or brothel is sold to a fishing captain, some are drugged or kidnapped. Many of the workers find themselves owing fees to the captain for taking on their debt of passage across the border or other 'favors' that are later labeled debts. Others don't realize they're slaves until they find themselves held captive by armed men.
The work on these fishing boats involves grueling 18 to 20 hour shifts in often hundred degree heat. Boat decks are sprawled with a tangled mess of tackle, nets and line and crews work through the black of night, fighting fifteen-foot swells that threaten to wash the crews legs from under them. A daily bowl of rice and boiled squid is eaten alongside the vermin and rats that scavenge for food. Amphetamines are commonly given to the workers, as it helps them adjust to two-hour sleeping shifts and long hours, though antibiotics are rare.
The Cambodian workers, many of which have never seen a body of water bigger than a lake and are unable to swim, will haul for fish, repair nets and sort the catch under the threat of beatings and death. The Thai captains (who rarely speak the same language as their crew) own the men on their boats and can choose to sell or kill any man they hold title to. Reports of caging, shackling, beating, shooting and workers being thrown overboard are all too common in this form of forced labor. Of fifty Cambodian men and boys surveyed by the United Nations, 29 reported seeing their captain or other officers kill a fellow worker.
Tracing fish sourced by forced labor seems futile, as many of these ships stay at sea for years. 'Motherships' carrying fuel, supplies and fresh workers roam the seas delivering goods and collecting hauls from these vessels in their vast, refrigerated underbellies. Once the fish are combined there is no way for port authorities to determine which fish were caught by paid workers and which were harvested by shackled slaves. Slaves are often abandoned on nearby desolate islands, sometimes for weeks, when a ship must venture into port for repair and are collected again for the trip back out to sea.
The United States is the biggest purchaser of Thai fish and pet food is one of the fastest growing exports from Thailand, doubling and growing in the last few years to a staggering $190 million a year industry. This past year, Thailand's largest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, has contributed more than 28 million pounds of seafood-based components to American pet food companies including Meow Mix, Fancy Feast and Iams, according to US Customs documentation. Mars Inc., is working to replace fishmeal in its products and plans to use farming practices and third party auditors to ensure its products are sustainable and in no way linked to forced, slave labor.