AP Reveals the Human Cost of Cheap Seafood
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor and Christian Guzman, Community Reporter
This past April, Associated Press journalists Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan won a Pulitzer Prize for stories that chronicled modern day slavery. Men from Myanmar and neighboring countries were tricked, captured and forced to work on fishing vessels.
During their 18-month investigation, AP journalists found men held in cages, tracked ships and stalked refrigerated trucks to expose the abusive practices of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia.
The Associated Press’ reporting led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves and traced the seafood to products sold in U.S. and European markets, including: Sea Best, Waterfront Bistro, Aqua Star, Chicken of the Sea and Fancy Feast. The San Pedro-based Tri-Marine Fish Company canned Chicken of the Sea tuna until its parent company sold its stake in the company in 2000.
The newswire service published 10 stories from March through December of 2015, weaving a gripping narrative that’s akin to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, except the characters in these stories are flesh and blood people.
The AP identifies the Indonesian island village, Benjina, as a haven, and to a degree, the heart of a human trafficking ring in Southeast Asia. The crackdown by authorities made the ring scatter, extending the time it would take to free the remaining enslaved fishermen.
The journalists talked to more than 40 current and former slaves in Benjina, during the course of their investigation, revealing how entire supply lines are tainted by slave labor while major corporate beneficiaries wouldn’t comment on the record. They only issued statements condemning the labor abuses.
They also talked to escaped slaves living in the interior island’s dense forests. The runaways survived by foraging for food and collecting rain water, all the while living in constant fear of hired slave catchers.
The newswire service also talked to officials in law enforcement, the government and suppliers (at least the ones willing to speak) in Indonesia. The AP also spoke with officials in the U.S. State Department.
Several independent seafood distributors, like Stavis Seafood and Santa Monica Seafood did comment, describing the costly and exhaustive steps taken to ensure their supplies are clear of slave labor.
The slaves who were interviewed recounted being forced to drink unclean water and work 20 to 22 hours shifts with no days off. Almost all of them reported that they had been kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest.
Consisting of two small islands separated by a 5-minute boat ride, the picture AP painted of Benjina was that of a regional Banana Republic in South East Asia with Pusaka Benjina Resources as the main villain, complete with a five-story office compound and slave-pen cages.
In the second story of its series, the AP reported the rescue of 300 slaves from Benjina. This was reported 11 days after their first story was published, and included vivid detail of the experiences of three slaves, Win Win Ko, Saw Eail Htoo and Myo Naing.
Ko had four teeth missing, the result of a fish boat captain kicking him in the mouth.
Htoo and Naing recounted being abused and tormented by a man known as the “enforcer.”
During one particular incident, after Htoo and Naing were at sea for three months, working with only two to four hours of sleep a night, the two men fell asleep on the deck. As punishment, their captain used a motorbike to drive them to a hill above the port. They were handcuffed together and placed in front of an Indonesian flag. Then, they were punched in the face and kicked until they collapsed. The “enforcer” kept kicking them as they lay on the ground.
The rescue came after Indonesian officials interviewed the fishermen and confirmed the abuse reported in AP’s story—a story that also included video of eight men locked in a cage and a slave graveyard. Indonesian officials ultimately rescued 320 people.
The third story in the AP investigative series is a report on how the United States permits fish imports caught by slaves to come into the country, despite the law. The Associated Press found that the United States has not enforced a law banning the import of goods made with forced labor since 2000 because of significant loopholes.
The AP also found that the United States has not slapped Thailand with the same kind of sanctions that it has against other countries with similar records on human trafficking. This is due to a complicated political relationship that includes cooperation against terrorism.
Among the complications in U.S. regulatory policy:
To start an investigation, needs to receive a petition from anyone—a business, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, even a non-citizen—showing “reasonably but not conclusively” that imports were made, at least in part, with forced labor. A spokesman for the Customs department said they had only received a handful of petitions and none pointing to seafood from Thailand.
Goods made with forced labor must be allowed into the United States if consumer demand cannot be met without them. Proving fish in a particular container is tainted by slave labor is nearly impossible, since different batches generally mix together at processing plants.
Thailand has been a U.S. ally dating back to the Vietnam War and is considered a critical ally in the war on terrorism. Thailand is an emerging regional counterweight to China.
The fourth story in the AP’s investigative series could have been named “22 Years a Slave.” The story documented Myint Naing’s real life tale of hope, despair and redemption.
Naing, left home at the age of 18 to earn money for his poverty-stricken family. The journey took him thousands of miles away from his family. This caused him to miss births, deaths, marriages and the unlikely transition of his country from a dictatorship to a democracy.
Naing’s story also links the vagaries of overfishing and its consequences with the labor abuse and human trafficking. It’s apparent that Naing is the cost paid for First World nation’s insatiable appetite for processed seafood.
In the fifth story of its 10-part series, the Associated Press tracked down the fish trawlers that escaped the crackdown reported on in its second story to Papua New Guinea.
The AP accomplished the feat through the accounts of returned slaves, satellite beacon tracking, government records, and interviews with business insiders and fishing licenses. Further confirmation was achieved through images taken by one of the world’s highest resolution satellite cameras.
Through the their reporting, AP documented how the trawlers were able evade detection, noting that even though skippers changed the names and flags of their ships, hiding in the world’s broad oceans is easy.
There, traffickers operate in an environment where boundaries are fluid, and laws are few and rarely enforced. The traffickers have depleted fish stocks, which have pushed boats farther out into the ungoverned seas.
The AP noted that this lack of regulation means that even with the men located, bringing them to safety may prove elusive.
In the follow up story published three days later, the AP reported on the second attempted rescue of enslaved fishermen and the capture of other fishing boats using slave labor. Eight fishermen were set free while the remaining boats were forced to go on the run.
In each story, the AP repeated the documentation of the conditions under which these enslaved fishermen lived: held in cages, beaten beyond human dignity and buried under fake names to ensure that the victims could never be found.
The AP also made sure to repeatedly document how the fishermen were enslaved in the first place. The stories were the same: desperate migrant workers, who were tricked by false promises of lucrative work to help them provide for their impoverished families.
The seventh story of AP’s investigative series was dedicated to the more than 2,000 fishermen who were freed since the news wire began publishing the series. In account after account, the newly freed fishermen talked about their enslavement, their struggles, their losses and their hope.
The AP also noted their reporting and lead to the shutting down of a multi-million dollar Thai-Indonesian fishing business, the arrest of nine people and the seizure of two fishing cargo vessels.
In the United States, importers have demanded change, three class-action lawsuits are underway, new laws have been introduced and the Obama administration is pushing exporters to clean up their labor practices. The AP’s work was entered into the congressional record for a hearing.
In November 2015, AP reported on Nestle’s public disclosure, the conclusions of its year long internal investigation, which found that virtually all U.S. and European companies buying seafood from Thailand are exposed to the same risks of being procured with slave labor.
Nestle hired the nonprofit organization that studies labor abuses, Verite, in December 2014 after reports from news outlets and nongovernmental organizations tied brutal and largely unregulated working conditions to their shrimp, prawns and Purina brand pet foods.
AP also reported that a class action lawsuit was filed against Nestle in August 2015, alleging Fancy Feast cat food was the product of slave labor. It’s one of several lawsuits filed in recent months against major U.S. retailers importing seafood from Thailand.
Nestle posted their reports online and said they would post a detailed yearlong solution strategy throughout 2016—as part of ongoing efforts to protect workers.
The final two stories exposed the use of slave labor in peeled shrimp—a story in which the AP recounted whole families with small children peeling shrimp destined for supermarkets around the world.
This story spurred calls on Americans to boycott seafood all together, which the AP reported in its final story.
The Associated Press concluded that seafood caught and processed with slave labor reached more than 100 markets and restaurants in the United States, including Wal-mart and Red Lobster.
The impact of slave labor on Harbor Area seafood consumption is unknown, but it has an obvious influence on the price of imported fish versus fish caught and processed domestically.
Steve Badger, a business agent for Teamster local 572 who also works with fisherman in the area, said none of them work with fishermen, or handle product from Southeast Asia. Hokkaido Seafood Buffet in Long Beach, and C-Food Co. in San Pedro, declined to comment on the sources of their seafood.
Tommy Amalfitano, manager of the San Pedro Fish Market, said its barracuda and halibut are locally sourced when in season. The market’s other fish comes from the waters off Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. However, the contents of the “World Famous Shrimp Tray” come from throughout the world, including Thailand. More than 1 million residents and visitors a year eat seafood at the San Pedro Fish Market.