RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We return this morning to the story of Vannak Prum. He is the Cambodian man who was tricked into three years of slave labor on a fishing boat. Prum was recognized at the State Department yesterday as a hero in the fight against human trafficking. Thousands of men like him are trafficked to boats in Thailand's giant fishing fleet, a fleet that supplies a large portion of America's seafood. Reporter Becky Palmstrom spoke with Vannak Prum and visited a Thai port where unwilling men like him are sent to sea.
BECKY PALMSTROM, BYLINE: We're in Songkhla in Thailand. We're walking through the docks on a sunny day. A metal disc crunches ice and chips and then spews them down a chute into the holes of the fishing boats. The air reeks of fish. We're crossing now onto one of the fishing boats here, walking across. These trawlers are wooden and roughly the length of a basketball court. All the metal parts have rusted on this one, and some of the paint is flaking off.
Okay. So we've got sort of crates of it looks like dirty water. I don't quite know what this is. What is this?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bath — take a bath. Take a bath.
PALMSTROM: The bath water is filthy. Conditions on fishing boats are tough, even on boats where the men are treated well. Limited bath water, crowded bunks, and financial uncertainty make this industry one of the least desirable to work in. The owner of this boat, Ly Oo says it's a battle to find willing workers.
LY OO: (Through translator) I don't know. Sometimes the boats go out for a whole year, and sometimes income is not guaranteed. You can't compete with a factory where there's guaranteed payment every month.
PALMSTROM: Human traffickers have stepped in to fill the gap often promising Cambodian and Burmese man land-based work to lure them into Thailand. A broker told Vannak Prum that if he left his home in Cambodia, he'd get a good job on land, but instead he ended up forced on board a boat like this one.
VANNAK PRUM: (Through translator) We worked day and night. Sometimes we fished three days and nights without stopping. After work we bathed. If we used more water than we were allowed, we would be beaten up. It happened not only on my boat, but on every boat.
PALMSTROM: Prum says he was whipped with the tail of a stingray. We spoke with 13 other fisherman who reported similar treatment. Skirting around the bathing area and going into the helm now. Oh, they're working right now. At this point we're rushed off the boat and the crew cast off. We then learned that a man who is well known in the community for trafficking workers onto boats had placed two men onto the very boat we were standing on. Once the victims are on board, they all but disappear.
It's common for multiple boats to operate under the same license making them almost impossible to track. Captains are not required to register crew lists, and often give their immigrant crew fake Thai IDs and fake Thai names. Phil Robertson, now with Human Rights Watch, wrote what many consider to be the authoritative investigation on abuses on Thai boats.
PHIL ROBERTSON: So if I wanted to smuggle anything, if I want to smuggle weapons, if I wanted to smuggle drugs, if I wanted to do all these various different things, put it on a fishing boat because nobody checks.
PALMSTROM: Once at sea, captains with forced labor will generally try to stay out as long as possible to stop their men from jumping ship. Some boats seek Malaysian fishing licenses so they can access better fishing grounds. And so they come to this area near Tanjung Manees to fill out their paperwork. Vannak Prum worked for three years at sea before he caught sight of this stretch of Malaysian Coast.
PRUM: (Through translator) I plotted the escape a long time ago, but I could not go anywhere in the middle of the ocean. I could not escape.
PALMSTROM: But with land in sight, Prum and other fisherman grabbed some empty plastic jugs to help them float. Then around midnight they plunged into the South China Sea and swam a few miles to shore.
PRUM: (Through translator) When I managed to escape into the forest, I knew I would live.
PALMSTROM: Prum spent the night in the forest and went to the police the following day.
PRUM: (Through translator) I thought that when I was in police hands, the police would inform the Embassy and they would help me get back to Cambodia.
PALMSTROM: Instead, the police picked up the phone, a red car pulled up, Prum was loaded in, taken to a palm oil plantation and sold again. In all, he was away five years. Prum's odyssey is a common one. Men are disappearing from villages in Cambodia and Burma, spending years at sea and then ending up often on plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. Not all Thai boats used forced labor, but the fish caught by legitimate boats gets mixed in with the fish from abusive boats. Phil Robertson.
ROBERTSON: What happens is you have middlemen fishmongers between the piers and the factories, and these fishmongers have multiple clients amongst the peers and they have multiple clients amongst the factories, and they will basically consolidate and then redistribute.
PALMSTROM: American fish companies deal with exporters, but those exporters can't always say which boats the fish came from. This poses real problems for American fish companies.
ROBERTSON: U.S. companies should recognize that these goods, produced with forced labor, are in violation of the 1930 Tariff Act, you know, it's an illegal import into the United States.
GAVIN GIBBONS: Our companies certainly have no interest in sourcing seafood from companies that use illegal or exploitative labor practices.
PALMSTROM: Gavin Gibbons is with the National Fisheries Institute. It is America's largest seafood trade company and represents many of the largest fish import companies - from Wal-Mart stores to Chicken of the Sea and Bumblebee Foods.
GIBBONS: I don't think it's that American fish companies don't want to go down to the boat level themselves, but what we've found is that the value chain that even the regulators that are in position to put regulations in place are having real trouble with it, that the companies are having trouble with it as well.
PALMSTROM: This muddied supply chain also means that responsible Thai boats could get painted with the slavery brush. This worries the National Fisheries Association of Thailand. Last year they denied forced labor even exists on Thai boats, but now they're doing an about face. Wicharn Sirichai-Ekawat is an advisor to the group.
WICHARN SIRICHAI-EKAWAT: The change is because this is the last opportunity for us.
PALMSTROM: The National Fisheries Association of Thailand has announced two initiatives. They plan to register migrants so they can work legally, and they also want to certify the boats that comply with labor standards so American companies and consumers know what they're buying.
ROBERTSON: Well, it depends on whether it's really serious or whether it's just what we call in Thai, (speaking foreign language).
PALMSTROM: Phil Robertson again.
ROBERTSON: Which is the sprig of coriander on top of something to make it look better even though it doesn't taste very good.
PALMSTROM: It's too soon to tell if the certification process will have an impact. Meanwhile, the flow of man onto Thai boats continues unabated. For NPR News, this is Becky Palmstrom.
MONTAGNE: And that story included reporting from Shannon Service. To see a photo of Vannak Prum and learn more about his plight, visit NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.