BENJINA, Indonesia - The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.
Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.
Here, in the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding waters, hundreds of trapped men represent one of the most desperate links criss-crossing between companies and countries in the seafood industry. This intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Your seafood may come from slaves.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Associated Press notified the International Organization for Migration about men in this story, who were then moved out of Benjina by police for their safety. Hundreds of slaves remain on the island, and five other men were in the cage this week.
The men The Associated Press spoke to on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was shipped back to Thailand, and then entered the global commerce stream.
Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America's major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor, Sysco. It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.
In a year-long investigation, the AP interviewed more than 40 current and former slaves in Benjina. The AP documented the journey of a single large shipment of slave-caught seafood from the Indonesian village, including squid, snapper, grouper and shrimp, and tracked it by satellite to a gritty Thai harbour. Upon its arrival, AP journalists followed trucks that loaded and drove the seafood over four nights to dozens of factories, cold storage plants and the country's biggest fish market.
Some fishermen, risking their lives, begged the reporters for help.
"I want to go home. We all do," one Burmese slave called out over the side of his boat, a cry repeated by many men. "Our parents haven't heard from us for a long time, I'm sure they think we are dead."
Their catch mixes in with other fish at numerous sites in Thailand, including processing plants. U.S. Customs records show that several of those Thai factories ship to America. They also ship to Europe and Asia, but the AP traced shipments to the U.S., where trade records are public.
The major corporations identified by AP declined interviews but issued statements that strongly condemned labour abuses; many described their work with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.
National Fisheries Institute spokesman Gavin Gibbons, speaking on behalf of 300 U.S. seafood firms that make up 75 per cent of the industry, said his members are troubled by the findings.
"It's not only disturbing, it's disheartening because our companies have zero tolerance for labour abuses," he said. "These type of things flourish in the shadows."
The slaves interviewed by the AP described 20- to 22-hour shifts and unclean drinking water. Almost all said they were kicked, beaten or whipped with toxic stingray tails if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing.
Runaway Hlaing Min said many died at sea.
"If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea," he said. "The bones of the people could be an island, it's that many."
The small harbour in the village is occupied by Pusaka Benjina Resources, whose five-story office compound includes the cage with the slaves. The company is the only fishing operation on Benjina officially registered in Indonesia, and is listed as the owner of more than 90 trawlers. However, the captains are Thai, and the Indonesian government is reviewing to see if the boats are really Thai-owned. Pusaka Benjina did not respond to phone calls and a letter, and did not speak to a reporter who waited for two hours in the company's Jakarta office.
At the Benjina port, the AP interviewed slaves from a dozen fishing vessels offloading their catch into a large refrigerated cargo ship, the Silver Sea Line.
The ship belonged to the Silver Sea Reefer Co., which is registered in Thailand and has at least nine refrigerated cargo boats. The company said it is not involved with the fishermen.
"We only carry the shipment and we are hired in general by clients," said owner Panya Luangsomboon. "We're separated from the fishing boats."
The AP followed that ship, using satellite tracking over 15 days to Samut Sakhon, Thailand, and journalists watched as workers packed the seafood over four nights onto more than 150 trucks, following deliveries to factories around the city.
Inside those plants, representatives told AP journalists that they sold seafood to other Thai processors and distributors. U.S. Customs bills of lading identify specific shipments from those plants to American firms, including well-known brand names.
For example, one truck bore the name and bird logo of Kingfisher Holdings Ltd., which supplies frozen and canned seafood around the world. Another truck went to Mahachai Marine Foods Co., a cold storage business that also supplies Kingfisher, according to Kawin Ngernanek, whose family runs it.
"Yes, yes, yes, yes," said Kawin, who also serves as spokesman for the Thai Overseas Fisheries Association. "Kingfisher buys several types of products."
When later asked about abusive labour practices, Kawin was not available. Instead, Mahachai Marine Foods manager Narongdet Prasertsri responded: "I have no idea about it at all." Kingfisher did not answer repeated requests for comment.
Every month, Kingfisher and its subsidiary KF Foods Ltd. sends about 100 metric tons of seafood from Thailand to America, according to U.S. Customs records. These shipments have gone to Stavis Seafoods, a Boston-based Sysco supplier, and other distributors.
"The truth is, these are the kind of things that keep you up at night," said CEO Richard Stavis, who grandfather started the company. He said his business visits international processors, requires notarized certification of legal practices and uses third-party audits.
"There are companies like ours that care and are working as hard as they can," he said.
A similar pattern repeats itself with other companies and shipments.
The AP followed another truck to Niwat Co., where part owner Prasert Luangsomboon said the company sells to Thai Union Manufacturing. Weeks later, when confronted about forced labour in their supply chain, Niwat referred several requests for comment to Luangsomboon, who could not be reached for further comment.
Thai Union Manufacturing Co. is a subsidiary of Thai Union Frozen Products PCL., Thailand's largest seafood corporation, with $3.5 billion in annual sales. This parent company, known simply as Thai Union, owns Chicken of the Sea and is buying Bumble Bee, although the AP did not observe any tuna fisheries.
Thai Union says its direct clients include Wal-Mart, and ships thousands of cans of cat food to the U.S. every month, including household brands like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. These end up on shelves of major grocery chains, such as Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons, as well as pet stores. Again, however, it's impossible to tell if a particular can of cat food might have slave-caught seafood.
Thai Union said it takes multiple stakeholders to eradicate labour abuses.
"We all have to admit that it is difficult to ensure the Thai seafood industry's supply chain is 100 per cent clean," Thai Union CEO Thiraphong Chansiri said in an emailed statement.
The enslaved fishermen on Benjina had no idea where the fish went, only that it was too valuable for them to eat. Their desperation was palpable.
A crude cemetery holds more than 60 graves strangled by tall grasses and jungle vines. The small wooden markers are neatly labeled, some with the falsified names of slaves and boats. Only their friends remember where they were laid to rest.
In the past, former slave Hla Phyo said, supervisors on ships simply tossed bodies into the sea to be devoured by sharks. But after authorities and companies started demanding that every man be accounted for on the roster upon return, captains began stowing corpses alongside the fish in ship freezers until they arrived back in Benjina.
"I'm starting to feel like I will be in Indonesia forever," said Phyo, wiping a tear away. "I remember thinking when I was digging, the only thing that awaits us here is death."
Esther Htusan contributed to this report from Benjina, Indonesia. Mason reported from Samut Sakhon, Thailand; Mendoza reported from Boston, Mass.
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> Est. population in modern slavery: 475,300 > Pct. population in modern slavery: 0.71% (44th highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.722 (78th worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $14,136 (80th highest) According to the Global Slavery Index, there were an estimated 475,300 Thai residents living in modern slavery, the 10th highest worldwide. The U.S., by contrast, just over roughly 60,000 modern slaves last year. Like many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region — where nearly two-thirds of the world’s modern slaves live — Thailand’s economy relies heavily on low-skilled work, especially in fishing, and garment industries. In addition, migrant workers from neighboring countries make up a sizable portion of Thailand’s workforce and are perhaps even more likely to enter into forced labor arrangements or be sexually exploited. While the Thai government has made efforts to address the problem of modern slavery, many of its measures have been poorly implemented or become bogged down by high levels of corruption.
9. Bangladesh > Est. population in modern slavery: 680,900 > Pct. population in modern slavery: 0.44% (59th highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.558 (42nd worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $3,167 (37th lowest) According to the Walk Free Foundation, the collapse of an eight-story garment factory last year, which killed more than 1,000 workers, “brought to light the reality of labour exploitation in the sector including the underpayment of wages, excessive work hours, and unsafe facilities” in Bangladesh’s garment industry. While it is unknown what proportion of low-skilled Bangladeshi garment workers are actually living in modern slavery, the incident highlighted the plight of poorly treated citizens working in under-regulated and dangerous environments. Bangladesh’s garment industry has grown rapidly in recent years, and the bulk of the output is destined for Western countries. Corruption likely exacerbates the issue, as it does in other countries where high numbers of residents are living in modern slavery. Transparency International rated Bangladesh worse than a majority of countries for corruption.
8. Indonesia > Est. population in modern slavery: 714,100 > Pct. population in modern slavery: 0.29% (66th lowest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.684 (66th worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $9,635 (69th lowest) Indonesia is one of the world’s most populous countries, with nearly 250 million citizens. It is also home to an estimated 714,100 in modern slavery, more than in most nations. According to the Walk Free Foundation, “Modern slavery in Indonesia is characterized by forced labour in domestic work, agriculture, and the fishing sector.” In particular, the report identifies the production of palm oil as problematic, stating it is often produced by workers who are trapped on plantations. Palm oil is used in many products Americans consume, from lipstick to ice cream. Indonesia, like many developing countries, has experienced relatively rapid growth, as well as high inflation, relative to highly developed countries.
7. Democratic Republic of the Congo > Est. population in modern slavery: 762,900 > Pct. population in modern slavery: 1.13% (6th highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.338 (2nd worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $655 (3rd lowest) Despite a strong economy, characterized by 8% GDP growth in 2013, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is still among the least developed countries in the world. The DRC was the site of a massively bloody war involving numerous African nations between 1998 and 2003, which cost millions of lives. Various armed conflicts continue today as well. The Walk Free Foundation notes that “Decades of political instability and a violent civil war have left many citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo vulnerable to modern slavery.” Another factor is the country’s rich resource base, as slaves are known to be used in the mining of commodities such as diamonds, copper, and gold. The government’s response to slavery has also been inadequate, earning a C on this year’s Global Slavery Index. According to Transparency International, the DRC was one of the worst-scoring nations on the Corruption Perceptions Index 2013.
6. Nigeria > Est. population in modern slavery: 834,200 > Pct. population in modern slavery: 0.48% (52nd highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.504 (32nd worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $5,746 (51st lowest) Nigeria does not suffer from war and civil unrest to the same degree as many other African nations. Yet, the country still struggles with modern slavery. Roughly one in every 200 residents are estimated to be living in slavery, one of the higher rates worldwide. Despite the problem, the Nigerian government is better than most at attempting to address the issue. Nigeria was one of only eight Sub-Saharan countries with a clear budget — $11.9 million — for funding responses to human trafficking. This was also the largest budget regionally, which likely helped Nigeria’s government receive the best index rating among African countries for its response to slavery. Corruption is still a major issue, however. Nigeria’s oil industry, including the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, has been under near constant scrutiny for shady practices and stolen goods.
5. Russia > Est. population in modern slavery: 1.0 million > Pct. population in modern slavery: 0.73% (32nd highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.778 (57th best) > GDP per capita 2013: $24,298 (46th highest) Russia is one of just five countries in the world with more than one million people living as modern slaves, according to the Walk Free Foundation. These include laborers born in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union, as well as women and children who are trafficked as sex workers. The foundation is also quite critical of the Russian government’s response to the problem, and notes that rampant corruption in law enforcement increases the vulnerability of Russians living in modern slavery. Russia’s GDP per capita, at $24,298 last year, was higher than that of any other country with a similarly high number of modern slaves. However, declining oil prices and economic sanctions could curb Russia’s economic growth.
4. Uzbekistan > Est. population in modern slavery: 1.2 million > Pct. population in modern slavery: 3.97% (2nd highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.661 (60th worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $5,176 (48th lowest) Roughly 4% of all people in Uzbekistan live in modern slavery, nearly the highest percentage in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, “State-sponsored forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector continues on a massive scale,” with over one million people forced to pick cotton for two months each year. The Cotton Campaign, an organization dedicated to eradicating forced labor in the Uzbekistani cotton industry, estimates that the number of citizens forced to pick cotton last year was as high as five million. Despite a decline in cotton production in recent years, and a drop in global prices, both the IMF and Asian Development Bank forecast strong growth in the country’s economy in 2014 and 2015.
3. Pakistan > Est. population in modern slavery: 2.1 million > Pct. population in modern slavery: 1.13% (6th highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.537 (39th worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $4,574 (44th lowest) More than 1% of Pakistan’s population — or an estimated 2,058,200 people — are believed to be living in slavery, both among the highest figures worldwide. The most common form of slavery in Pakistan is debt bondage, a technique frequently used by employers in ungoverned and fringe industries. As workers spiral further into debt, other family members are often forced to help work off the bond. According to the Walk Free Foundation, there are an estimated 10 million child workers in Pakistan. Forced marriages and sex trafficking are also more common in Pakistan than in the vast majority of countries.
2. China > Est. population in modern slavery: 3.2 million > Pct. population in modern slavery: 0.24% (59th lowest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.719 (76th worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $11,868 (77th lowest) Roughly 3.2 million people live in modern slavery in China. This high figure may be due, in part, to the country’s scale, as China is the world’s most populous country with more than 1.3 billion residents. However, in the U.S., the world’s third most populous country, just over 60,000 people live in modern slavery, according to the Walk Free Foundation. China’s rapid modernization and urbanization, the foundation adds, “correlates with large flows of domestic migrants moving around the country in search of work.” Last year, roughly 166 million workers in China left their hometowns and worked elsewhere, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China. That figure alone is larger than the entire U.S. labor force. Such migrant workers, according to the foundation, are vulnerable to modern slavery in a range of industries, including construction and mining.
1. India > Est. population in modern slavery: 14.3 million > Pct. population in modern slavery: 1.14% (5th highest) > Human Development Index Score: 0.586 (46th worst) > GDP per capita 2013: $5,450 (50th lowest) With the second-largest population in the world, it is perhaps not surprising that India has the largest absolute number of residents living in conditions of modern slavery. The 14.3 million modern-day slaves in India, however, is by far the highest figure worldwide, and more than four times the next highest figure. The prevalence of slavery in India, as in other countries located in the Asia-Pacific region, is largely due to the economy’s dependence on low-skilled and cheap labor. Bonded labor is especially prevalent in the country. Forced marriages and commercial sex workers are also relatively common. Like many other countries with large numbers of modern slaves, India is also quite poor. India had a GDP per capita of just $5,450 per capita last year, one of the lower figures worldwide.