The State Department, the U.S. seafood and retail industries and a member of Congress reacted swiftly Wednesday to an Associated Press investigation published this week that found slave-caught fish clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States. The AP reported that hundreds of men were trapped on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina, and tracked seafood they caught to Thai exporters who then sell to America.
"It has become increasingly clear that workers in the fishing industry, many of whom are migrants, are exploited at multiple points along the supply chain, from harvesting to processing," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing Wednesday.
The State Department blacklisted Thailand last year for failing to meet minimum standards in fighting human trafficking. Psaki did not say whether current trade talks with Thailand include labour rights.
The National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Fisheries Institute, in a letter to the ambassadors of Thailand and Indonesia, also demanded to know what will be done to free the slaves described in AP's coverage and bring their masters to justice. The industry leaders said that in the past they have asked the Thai government to address forced labour, but have lacked specific allegations.
"The AP article changes this dynamic," they wrote.
The more than 40 slaves interviewed by AP in Benjina said they were brought to Indonesia from Thailand and put on trawlers with Thai captains.
Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, Thailand's deputy prime minister, on Thursday denied there were any slaves working on Thai-flagged fishing boats, instead saying the problems occurred in Indonesia.
"We don't use any (slaves) right now. None. But those in Indonesia, I don't know," Prawit told reporters following a meeting with officials to help repatriate Thai fishermen stranded in Indonesia. "Do not blame us. Right now we don't have. I guarantee there's none."
At the same time, the Thai government has said it is cleaning up the problem and has laid out a plan to address labour abuse, including new laws that mandate wages, sick leave and shifts of no more than 14 hours.
Thailand's junta-appointed lawmakers on Thursday voted unanimously to create tougher penalties for violating the country's anti-human trafficking law. Causing a person's death through human trafficking could bring the death penalty, and those who cause severe injury face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine of 400,000 baht ($12,300).
Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement issued Wednesday that at least 1.6 million foreign migrant workers, most of them employed in the fishing industry, are now registered with the government and have the same labour protections as Thai workers. It also said the industry will be more closely monitored, with surveillance systems scheduled to be installed on more than 7,700 fishing vessels by June.
On Wednesday, however, Thailand's military leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, asked the media not to report on human trafficking without considering how the news will affect the country's seafood industry and reputation abroad.
Meanwhile, Indonesia has vowed to crack down on those responsible within its territory.
"We would like to ensure you that we will take legal measures to address what happened in Benjina and other places," said Indroyono Soesilo, co-ordinating minister of Maritime Affairs.
Thailand's biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, announced Wednesday that it immediately cut ties with a supplier identified in the AP report after determining it might be involved with forced labour and other abuses. Thai Union did not name the supplier.
In the U.S., many companies that sell seafood from Thailand have said they are already taking steps to prevent labour abuse in their supply chains. Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents about 75 per cent of U.S. seafood sellers, said AP's reports of labour abuses "have been particularly painful for the seafood community."
He added that his members now plan to follow up using details from the report.
"Pointing to specific boats, producers and processors gives us the ability to push for aggressive investigation and enforcement," said Gibbons.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said legislation can be part of the solution, and is reintroducing a law requiring large companies to disclose policies to keep their supply chains free of slavery.
"The reporting by The Associated Press reveals that even though we outlawed slavery in America, we're still importing too many products created with slave labour," Maloney said. "That's wrong, and we need federal legislation to help stop it."
Oceana, a non-profit watchdog, is pressing yet another solution: Use satellite tracking to identify fishing vessels pulling illegal harvests in foreign waters, and traceability tools to follow a fish from boat to plate.
"Until now, fishing on the high seas was often out of sight, out of mind," said Jacqueline Savitz, vice-president for the non-profit Oceana. "Illegal fishing and other horrible practices such as slavery on the open ocean have gone virtually unseen and continue to occur."
The slaves interviewed by AP were from Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma. They said they were forced to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing.
The Obama administration plans to convene experts next month to learn about surveillance and enforcement technologies being piloted to track fishing in marine protected areas around the world. The State Department, Defence Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are all participating.
Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok, Bradley Klapper in Washington and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report.