The Outlaw Ocean Podcast

Episode 3

Slavery at Sea


Trigger Warning: The episode you’re about to hear contains descriptions of violence. Please take care.

Somber Music

Barack Obama: When a man desperate for work finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field working, toiling for little or no pay and beaten if he tries to escape. That is slavery.

Unknown Man: There are more enslaved workers today than at any other time in human history, and a large number of them are at sea.

Broadcaster: Might stay at sea for months or years.

Unknown Man #2: Crammed together over years. You know, not being able to leave this confined space.

Broadcaster #2: Some were thrown overboard, shot, or decapitated. The fish they catch is shipped all around the world.

Somber Music and Faint Shouting

Ian Urbina: I've been reading countless reports: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Red Cross. You know, reports based on interviews of escaped and returned deckhands on vessels that were notorious for using captive labor, often called sea slaves.

Shouting, Water Splashing, and Somber Music

Ian Urbina: The testimonies were brutal. You know, beatings were routine, disappearances were common. The defiant were beheaded. The sick were cast overboard. More than 50% had witnessed murder.

Somber Music

Ian Urbina: To the extent that there was any coverage of this in journalism, in reports, it had always been done on land, you know, interviewing deckhands that escaped and were back on shore. No journalists had made it out onto these vessels to witness the conditions directly. So, it just seemed like if we were going to do a service to this topic, that I really had to get out there to actually see it with my own eyes.

Shouting, Water Splashing, and Somber Music

Ian Urbina: Episode three. Slavery at Sea.

Water Rushing and Ominous Music

Deckhand #1 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #1 Translation: When I arrived at the sea, I was panicky. I sat down, I sobbed. A Thai man turned up and asked, “Why do you cry?” I said, “I want to go back home to see my mother.” I thought I would die when I went out to sea. I was so scared. But I followed the others onto the boat.

Deckhand #2 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #2 Translation: I said, “We could not do this. This was dangerous.” He told me that I'm just a worker and he was the boss.

Deckhand #3 Translation: I work and I didn't get paid. The boat captain said if anyone couldn't work, he would throw the man into the water, or he would shoot him to death.

Unknown Woman Speaking Foreign Language

Boat Engine Whirring

Ian Urbina: I'd gone to Songkhla, Thailand because it's a place where there were a lot of these bigger ships that tend to go farther from shore. And my hope was to get out far from shore to see this reality, this type of boat, the sea slave vessel, of which there were said to be hundreds, if not thousands in the South China Sea.

Woman on Boat: Yes.

Ian Urbina: Okay. So we asked the engineer to come with us? Who is the guy in the white shirt? Ask who the guy…hold on. We are looking for the perfect boat from which to tell the story about sea slaves. And at this point, I was actually pretty worn down. We had spent five weeks trying to get to this space to find this kind of boat. And we had many unsuccessful efforts. You know, there was a lot of attention on Thailand in general and the fishing fleet in particular. And so, the fishing industry, already an insular, skeptical industry, was even more guarded. You don't walk up to a Thai fishing captain and ask them would they provide transport out to a sea slave vessel? That doesn't even make sense to them. The term sea slavery is not one they would use. So you have to kind of describe the type of vessel you're looking for in a very careful, different way so that they understand what you're looking for and they're not scared away from helping you do it. I quickly realized no captain would be willing to take us the full two, 300 miles, so we would instead have to convince captains to take us 30 miles, 50 miles, and then talk our way on to a next boat. So the process became a sort of hopscotch where we convinced the first captain to take us out and to radio to another captain who would take us even further out and so on and so on. Just tell him to take your time. I was actually worrying about the morale of my team. You know, the translator fixer I was with, she was pretty worn down and seemed a bit queasy, having been at sea so much. And my photographer was getting a bit impatient. He'd been out in the field with me for, what, five weeks and, and I thought, “This isn't good.” And then, you know, we're going 150 miles from shore. And finally we started approaching this boat. And immediately I thought, yeah, this is it.

Shouting, Water Splashing, and Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: As we approach, there are 25, 20 guys, you know, they're all barefoot. Some of them look literally like they might be 12, 13. The boat was like none I'd ever seen before or since. The, the deck of it was layered with this slippery ooze. It's the build up of fish guts that sort of starts to grow as this carpet of goo. There were rats all over the place and there were, you know, just an inordinate number of roaches. On proper boats, hooks face down. You always put them away so that when you're walking by, they don't open up your skin, you know? And hooks were all up and about, and nets were just sort of strewn about. It was just, like, incredibly dangerous. You know, these boats do not have first aid kits, med kits. Most often, if there are any pills on board those pills are amphetamines that the captain would distribute to sort of push the guys longer hours. These boys are typically working 20 hour days. They're migrants. So they don't even speak the language. Mostly don't know how to swim and had never seen the sea before this work. And then you look at their hands and their feet and you see just sort of low grade infections and cuts all over the place because this is the wettest place imaginable. So these guys are always wet and then their hands especially are brutalized because they don't wear gloves. So their skin's tearing easily. And when the cuts get big enough or infected enough, the boys stitch themselves or stitch each other. Obviously they’re not very hygienic about it or good at it. And when your skin's well, it's pretty hard to do stitches. One of the deckhands approached me and proudly showed off his two missing fingers, and it had gotten caught in a sort of spinning winch. The pressure of the nets on those winches is just like a sharp knife, you know? And it cut right through both fingers immediately.

Shouting and Tense Music

Deckhand #2 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #2 Translation: We worked day and night without sleep. Four to five days without sleep. We'd work around the clock. I only drink coffee. I puked coffee. Some people could not take it.

Deckhand #3 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #3 Translation: If you work all night without rest, we would receive addictive drug to us to smoke.

Deckhand #4 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #4 Translation: Every company, every boat. No time to rest. So I was sick. And people died. People could not eat and then die. They died and were thrown in the water.

Rustling, Shouting, and Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: The Thai fleet is woefully under mechanized and sort of pre-modern, and it relies on cheap, unpaid, undocumented, migrant workers to do what machines should do. So, you know, these 100 ton nets normally would be pulled out of the water with help from machines. But in this case, these 40 guys on board manually pull the nets out of the water. And that's just insane. It doesn't even seem that it could be possible. And yet they make it possible through this chanting, this singing that they do to ensure that they're all on the same beat and pulling at the same moment. And when you get 40 guys pulling at the same moment, it's a lot of force. And it was just, it was this almost like industrial ballet I was witnessing. It was the most bizarre and other worldly moment.

Chanting in Foreign Language and Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: One of the things that hit me hardest was the realization that some of these boys were the exact same age as my own son. You know, at that point, my son was 14, and that just, I kept thinking about what this existence was like for someone that young.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: Most of them are debt bonded, which is to say they're not allowed to leave the ship until they pay off what they owe for the costs of that inbound trip into the country. I wanted to find out, did they feel like they were making progress towards paying back, you know, i.e. soon to leave? And I sat with this one boy and there is this term Kapwa, and that was the term for debt. And he's gesturing as if he's trying to catch his shadow. And he's saying, “Kapwa, Kapwa can't catch.” You can't ever pay off your debt. You can't catch your shadow.

Tense Music and Speech in Foreign Language

Ian Urbina The problem of sea slavery is a global problem. You find it off the coast of the Falkland Islands. You find it in New Zealand waters. You find it off the coast of West and East Africa. But nowhere is it more intense than on the South China Sea and quite especially in the Thai fleet.

Pulsing Music

Broadcaster #3: Thailand is the world's third largest exporter of fish and a major supplier to the United States. Its fleet of boats and trawlers is massive, but it's also chronically short of workers, and human traffickers are sending unwilling migrants to work on Thai boats.

Broadcaster #4: The industry was rocked by accusations that many of its workers were victims of trafficking and forced labor. Most were migrants from Burma and Cambodia.

Ian Urbina: Thailand is a middle class country with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. What you also have in Thailand is various neighbors that are distinctly poor and war torn. So in Laos and Cambodia and Myanmar, you have unusual poverty and unusual levels of volatility. And so the combination of those factors is a perfect storm whereby you have massive numbers of cheap undocumented migrant workers flowing into the country.

Pulsing Music and Engine Whirring

ian Urbina: I went to Thailand to look at sea slavery generally, and I wanted to go specifically to Kantang. It is one of the few deep water ports in Thailand. And what that means is that distant water fishing fleet, the bigger vessels that can go much further from shore, those boats that also happen to be the ones that are most prone to sea slavery tend to be there. Everyone said, “Of all the places you go in Thailand, you need to be most careful as a journalist in that city.” It is a notorious snake pit of criminality. Part of that criminality was this long running tradition of bodies showing up in the river that ran through the city. And not only did they show up, you know, pretty routinely, but they often would show up with signs of torture and indications of execution-style murder. And the other striking thing about it is how little happened in terms of police investigation. You know, there is a real turning of a blind eye. And many of these bodies were buried in this unmarked graveyard off the main highway that everyone knew was where deckhands end up.

Engine Whirring

Deckhand #5 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #5 Translation: The money that I made from work at the time was not enough to support the family. So, I thought that if I would go to work on the boat as my friend recommended, I might make more money and I would have excess money for savings.

Deckhand #6 Speaking Foreign Language Deckhand #6 Translation: He asked me if I wanted to go to southern Indonesia to work. “It’s good money,” he said. That's why he said.

Deckhand #6 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #6 Translation: The trafficker charged 3000 Baht. I borrowed the money for my mother. I was supposed to settle the debt when I got to work. I will pay my debt, the money that I borrow for my mother.

Deckhand #7 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #7 Translation: I decided to go with him. We reached the border and he sold us at the border. He fled.

Ian Urbina: You talk with enough of these workers, and the patterns become clear. I heard over and over again of these manning agencies, which are essentially just human trafficking companies, bringing the men and boys in. Often they're housed in rooms above karaoke bars. And in Thailand, these karaoke bars double as brothels.

Electronic Music

Ian Urbina: So that’s (indistinct). And everyone else here are workers? If you had to guess? The karaoke bars downstairs have the trafficked girls and women, all migrants, and then upstairs have the trafficked men and boys, all migrants, both of them in these really dark industries and this sinister sort of leverage game emerged where in storing and keeping the guys there as they waited to be sent off on their boats, they would be encouraged to go downstairs and carouse, have some drinks, you know, spend some time with the girls.

Individual Singing Karaoke and Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: These are kind of naive villagers who don't even speak the local language. And so many of them assumed that their tab was on the house, right? Quite to the contrary. You know, these guys would wake up the next day and realize that they had just put themselves way deeper in debt by having a couple of drinks, you know, the night before. And that debt was then used to leverage them further into this debt bondage.

Ominous Music and Water Stirring

Deckhand #8 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #8 Translation: I was sitting at a karaoke bar. I was looking for a girl to hang out with. Honestly, I was looking for a prostitute. I saw a woman's face. A girl I bought. I don't know who she is. That's the last thing I remember.

Ominous Music

Deckhand #9 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #9 Translation: When I woke up, I felt the bedroom shake. So we now signs of water. I was already on the boat. For the next one to two months, we were at sea and would never see land. We could not do anything. Even if we wanted to flee, how would we do that?

Water Splashing and Electronic Beeping

Ian Urbina: At its core, debt bondage is a system whereby people work to pay off debt that they incurred. And it used to be the norm. You know, until modern laws banished it in most developed countries. In the trafficking version of it, where you're transporting workers from one location to another, it's a sort of travel now, pay later scheme.

Daniel Murphy: A Labor recruiter will say, Well, it's cost you this much to come and stay in the capital city. It’s going to cost this much for you to be transported illegally across the border. It's going to cost this much to get you from the border to your destination. So by the time you've arrived at your port of employment, you're already in debt to the tune of several months wages, if not more.

Ian Urbina: There was this guy that I kept hearing mention named Daniel Murphy.

Daniel Murphy: My name's Daniel Murphy. I've been working on labor rights violations in the fishing sector for about eight years now.

Ian Urbina: He is a Brit who is based in Thailand who spoke Thai, and he was the go-to guy for Environmental Justice Foundation and Human Rights Watch and Greenpeace and all these organizations that were doing this kind of investigation. And so, I thought, “I got to hire this guy. He can help me stay alive in Kantang, and he can help me figure out where the bodies are, if you will.”

Daniel Murphy: So I've spoken to survivors of trafficking in forced labor situations who thought they were going to work in palm oil plantations, metal factories, electronics factories, seafood processing plants. It's a pretty common technique employed by unscrupulous recruiters when they're struggling to meet the labor demands of fishing vessel operators. And this is in a context where there's a persistent and significant labor deficit in the Thai fishing sector to the tune of 20 to 50,000 workers. That's the shortage, the labor shortage. So in that context, vessel operators are desperate for workers.

Pensive Music and Indistinct Chatter

Deckhand #7 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #7 Translation: The Trafficker stayed in the village. He asked me to go to work on the boat with him. He promised with high salary. The salary would be paid every three months.

Deckhand #6 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #6 Translation: He told me that I work on a poultry farm. That's a lie. He scammed me and sold me at sea. I was shocked when I reached the sea. I thought, “Oh, no, I'm finished. I'm sold.” I was panicking.

Deckhand #10 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #10 Translation: They had duped us all. For the salary, they didn't pay us or send to our families at all. We didn’t realized that the company had duped us and cheated us.

Tense Music and Clanging

Daniel Murphy: Thailand underwent a rapid expansion of industry in the late seventies and throughout the eighties. And what you start to see is large scale labor migration from neighboring countries, which provided Thailand with a plentiful ready supply of cheap, precarious, migrant labor that could fulfill the need to produce at volume at relatively low cost. What that rapid expansion of industrial fishing capacity translated into was a very precipitous decline in fish stocks in local waters.

Tense Music

Daniel Murphy: So as coastal fish stocks declined, we started to see investment in a new kind of boat, a boat that could go out to sea for longer but could go into deeper waters safely. In some cases, you’d have cargo vessels resupplying fishing vessels at sea. So this is known as transshipment at sea, which pretty much allows you to stay out indefinitely.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: You send the fishing boats really far from shore and you tell them to stay out there, you know, keep fishing, and you then rely on motherships, which are these big cargo vessels. And those mother ships bring men, fuel, supplies out to the fishing fields. They take the fish off the fishing boats, put them in cold storage, they unload whatever else onto the boats, and that has created a distinctly vulnerable situation for the workers, because they might stay out there for two, three years on end if the boat is in good shape. They might rotate the captain out, but the crews stay on there for insane amounts of time, and that's just crushingly brutal from a physical and mental health point of view. And it also just lends itself to even worse abuses because they're so far from shore that, you know, people can disappear. Inspectors have no chance of getting out there and seeing what's going on. And furthermore, the only guys who will ever take that job, who would ever consider doing that are ones who are extremely desperate or they've been trafficked and they don't have a choice.

Intense Music

Deckhand #11 Speaking Faintly: (Indistinct) And two months later, two weeks later I end up like this

Unknown Deckhand Translation: I had a sense of despair because the work requires to always remain on the water, not the land. I had a sense that I would stay there at least 5 to 10 years before settling back to the land.

Deckhand #12 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #12 translation: I'd worked for four to five years. I earned nothing. I lost my fingers.

Deckhand #13 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #13 Translation: I thought that I would never be back home in this life. The captain forced me and control me every way. No freedom.

Somber Music

Daniel Murphy: These people haven't even seen the sea before. They've got no idea what it's like working in fishing. They've got no idea what it's like being at sea. You're suffering a real extreme degree of isolation. And what that means is it creates this emotional, psychological dependency, almost a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, in the tight, claustrophobic confines of a boat at sea for long periods of time where deckhands and crew, it's much easier for them to become very compliant. And the ability of captains to manipulate and deceive crew in that context becomes really strong.


Low, Somber Music

Ian Urbina: I think it's really important if you're going to be a good journalist to really, genuinely and honestly try to understand the perspective even of folks that you fundamentally disagree with. And so, you know, murderous, beating captains are a worthy target for that ambition. And so, I spent a lot of time really trying to talk with them and get their take on these things. And what I learned was, number one, their view is that debt bondage is a perfectly legitimate, contractual setup whereby all sorts of people who otherwise couldn't access this line of work can because they take a loan just like you or me from a bank. But that loan comes from a manning agency or comes from a labor broker, i.e. a trafficker. They then get access to this opportunity by taking that loan. Then the captain buys the loan. And so now, from the captain's point of view, they've paid for something and they are owed it. And if the laborer leaves without holding up their end of the bargain, then from the captain's perspective, that's theft.

Low, Somber Music

Deckhand #14 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #14 Translation: They shot people and put them in chains. They threw people into the water. When we transfer the fish to the island, they had the security guards torture us in the jungle.

Deckhand #15 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #15 Translation: He beat us when we were sleepy during work. Sometimes, we were exhausted. He kicked us if we selected the fish and mixed together.

Deckhand #16 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #16 Translation: He could not take it anymore. Then he died, right on the boat. We helped wrap the body and put it into the freezer where we store fish.

Deckhand #17 Speaking Foreign Language

Deckhand #17 Translation We are not machines, so people die. One man just laid out, eyes wide open and died. We call out to him. He was already dead.

Eerie Music and Shouting

Shannon Service: The level of psychological and physical violence that these men endure is beyond comprehension. Men have told me that they've been beaten with stingray tails, with chains. They've had scalding hot water poured on them. I remember a guy in Malaysia who told me that his captain liked to get drunk and would put a beer can or an apple on the head of the new slave and shoot at it at sea for target practice.

Ian Urbina: There was a woman named Shannon Service who I admired greatly. She was a really good reporter. She worked for NPR. And Shannon produced a film about this very subject called Ghost Fleet. The interviews with enslaved deckhands you hear throughout this episode are from her recordings.

Eerie Music

Unknown Woman: (Indistinct) go to Indonesia. These are 13 (Indistinct) and some fishermen talk with me. Another island have fisherman and I cannot go and I want to go to buy a boat.

Shannon Service: She heard from the local fishermen that should have someone here.

Unknown Man: In Kaimana?

Yeah, in Kaimana.

[00:29:33] Shannon Service: Our film follows a remarkable woman named Patma, who goes to very remote islands and finds men who've jumped ship off of boats where they'd been enslaved, in some cases for five, ten, 15 years. They will end up either on a deserted island where they're digging up roots and leaves and sleeping in trees. Some men go mad. Some men try not to sleep so that they don't dream of home. If they're a bit luckier, they may encounter a small community or indigenous tribe that they'll marry into. They'll have a completely different life. They'll learn a new language.

Somber Music and Woman Talking in Foreign Language

Shannon Service: Patma helps either return them home to their families, if that's their choice, or connect them, reconnect them with their families if they want to stay where they are.

Somber Music

Phone Conversation in Foreign Language

Somber Music

Chatter in Foreign Language

Shannon Service Often, the men that I talked to had been carrying this incredibly huge, hard, traumatic experience and hadn't spoken to anyone about it.

Crying and Chatter in Foreign Language

Shannon Service Often when we show up, it's the very first time that the men are telling the story at all. And so, there's a huge responsibility in that.

Emotional Music

Ian Urbina: The challenge here as a journalist, as a storyteller, is the sheer difficulty of wrapping your brain around someone else's experience when that experience is so intense and so foreign, and how you can capture that experience in a way that your downstream readers will believe, understand, be able to process.

Shannon Service: As a reporter, of course, I know the value and the incredible impact of straight reporting, of putting this issue on the map. But to really bring somebody into this place and to connect them as human beings, with the human beings on the other side of their plate of fish, I think it takes a certain kind of storytelling.

Ian Urbina: I found myself haunted by this question: How do I possibly convey something that's so extreme and dire in a newspaper article? The sort of X Factor, the missing language, the thing that's there but unstated, the intangible element: it's the emotions of the person you're capturing. It's your emotions in interacting with them. It's the collective chemistry of those two things to set the stage of just how tragic this really is.

Chanting in Foreign Language and Tense Music

John Kerry: You may be familiar with the story of Lang Long, who left Cambodia on the promise of a construction job in Thailand. But on arriving in Thailand, Long was forced to work on a fishing vessel. He was beaten regularly with a metal pole, compelled to drink…

Ian Urbina: There's one story in my reporting in Thailand that will stick with me forever. And that was the story of a man named Lang Long. The story begins with a guy named Som Nang, a security guard who worked on one of these motherships that supplies the fishing vessels. And one day, while supplying the boats, Som Nang was shocked to see a man who was shackled by the neck to the boat.

John Kerry: He was chained by a rusty metal collar around his neck to an anchor post so that he couldn't escape. This was his life for several years.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: When Som Nang boarded the vessel and got a chance to get near Lang Long, what he saw was a four-to-six foot chain with a shackle around Lang Long’s neck. Lang Long, a very small, thin guy, was pretty bruised in many places, including all over his neck from the shackle. And Som Nang describes the look in Lang Long's eyes as one of total desperation. And Lang Long whispered, “Help me.”

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: In some ways, Lang Long was a textbook quintessential story. I mean, he's a 30 year old guy from a tiny village in Cambodia. He had, you know, I think maybe eight to ten siblings that he was supposed to be looking after and was not succeeding. You know, the rice paddy on his small plot of land was just not sufficient and really, really struggling. And he meets a guy at some religious festival on the weekend. And this guy said, “I may know someone that could help with that. Do you want a job in Thailand?” The money on offer was more than Long could make in a year, you know. And so the description was that it was, you know, a construction job. And Long said, “The problem is, I don't have any money to pay to get into the country. I don't even know how to do that.” And this guy said, “I can help you with that. Don't worry about paying upfront. You can deal with that once you get the job. And why don't you just meet me at this location next week?” And off he went.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: Long showed up, met the guy, gets in the back of a truck and thus begins this journey surreptitiously across the border. Along the way, other Cambodians are picked up. At some point, there are about a half dozen of them. They get across the border. Next thing they know, they're at the port. They're not at a construction site, and they're being walked on to a ship, and they are not in a position to ask questions or change their mind. And the negotiation happens between the trafficker who is talking with the captain. “I got you six guys. It cost me 200, 250 per guy to get them this far from Cambodia here.” The captain pays off the labor broker. And now, these guys are like chattel, you know, they're on board and off they go. In Long’s case, he was sold to the captain for $530, you know, so that's in Thailand less than it cost to buy a water buffalo.

Tense Music

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: Lang Long’s story, Lang Long’s nightmare didn't last weeks or months. It ended up stretching over the course of three brutal years. The brutality was so bad that Lang Long eventually assumed he'd never see land. And as is common with these guys, the one idea they have is maybe they can escape if they jump overboard. And because the vessels, again, spend all their time so far from shore, the options of where you would jump overboard that you have a chance of surviving are limited. And so, in Lang Long's case, the one moment when it may have made sense to jump overboard was when a supply vessel came near. Lang Long attempted to jump overboard, swim to a nearby vessel and was immediately caught, brought back, and that's when they began shackling him whenever he wasn't working.

[00:38:33] Ethereal Music

Ian Urbina: Som Nang heads to shore. Having seen Lang Long shackled, he immediately tries to figure out who he can contact to help, and he ends up with Stella Maris, this organization that, you know, helps sick ends in distress. And over the next couple of months, Som Nang on two occasions resupplies the boat. On both of these visits, Lang Long was shackled by the neck. And on the second visit, Som Nang whispered to lake along that he was trying to help him get his freedom. With help from Stella Maris, Som Nang raises the money, a paltry sum, if you think about it. $750. The money's in a brown paper bag. I just remember that feeling like some sort of back alley transaction at sea. Som Nang takes it out on a supply visit and hands it to the captain. And the captain agrees to release Lang Long. This guy probably would have stayed at sea for years more. Literally his entire life was changed by this incredibly paltry sum of $750. That's all that was needed to buy his life back, his freedom. It puts a price tag on a human being, and that number is actually less-I looked it up-than the cost of what I had to pay for a plane ticket to fly to Thailand to interview him.

Tense Music, Car Horn, and Siren

Ian Urbina: He was in the Stella Maris office, actually. Upstairs, they have some bunks for seafarers who are escaping their ships. I was very nervous about the interview, frankly, because I recognized he was only two weeks back from this horrific experience, and I had no idea whether he would be, you know, emotionally destroyed and even able to talk with me about it. He was rail thin, deeply, deeply quiet, very little movement, a stillness to his face that almost seems robotic. When he sat in the chair, he didn't shift in the chair. It was like a cadaver had been propped up. He never looked at me in the eyes. He was clearly a guy who was broken. Normally, I interview folks and I have a recorder on the table, and I planned on doing that here. But when I saw him, I realized this was going to be even harder to get him to relax. And so I never turned it on, decidedly so, just because I thought it would scare him even more.

Somber Music

Ian Urbina: He told me his story. You know, he told me that he didn't expect to be fishing, thought he was going to construction. He told me that he spent three years at sea and had been sold from boat to boat twice. He told me how there would be these intense arguments when he was sold between the captains and of course, not speaking Thai, had no idea what the arguments were about, but they were ferocious, and no one else on the boat spoke Khmer. And so he had no one to talk to, to communicate with, and had no idea what was being said throughout. At one point he was on the bridge and near the radio and no one was around and he considered calling someone but had no idea how to use the machinery or who he would call. You know, how even to do that, what language it would be in, what he would say. He was not very good at sorting the fish and would get beaten, hit with a metal rod when he would make mistakes and put the wrong type of fish in the wrong barrel. He knew that he had a debt at the outset but had no idea whether he was lowering that debt and earning his way to freedom. I asked him how long he had to wear the shackle before he first encountered Som Nang, and he said nine months. He'd been wearing the shackle around his neck for nine months.

Waves Crashing and Wood Creaking

Ian Urbina: The story ran in July 2015, and Lang Long became a bit of an icon. You know, Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department generally around him got in touch and were very interested in the case. And John Kerry, in a dozen speeches at the UN and elsewhere in the subsequent months, referenced Lang Long’s story and talked about how he was sort of a picture of this kind of human trafficking.

John Kerry: Long was forced to work on a fishing vessel. He became a prisoner on the boat. Pressed into service on, the captain would shackle him. Chained by a rusty metal collar. Shackled by his neck to the boat. Three years at sea. If that isn’t slavery and imprisonment, I don't know what is.

Somber Music

Ian Urbina: The State Department has an annual report called the Trafficking in Persons Report. It's the TIP report, and it ranks countries based on their human rights and labor and trafficking problems. And Thailand faced a downgrade. Much credit to Secretary of State John Kerry, partially because of this case and other cases that had recently been brought to light.

John Kerry: The purpose of this document is not to scold. It's not to name and shame. It is to enlighten. And by issuing it, we want to bring to the public's attention the full nature and scope of a $150 billion illicit trafficking industry.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: I mean, the big picture here for Thailand is massive. You know, the fishing industry is one of the most important industries in Thailand. And all of a sudden, there were all these barriers being put up, you know, fines being levied, and it was factoring into trade deals that were being negotiated and companies were even considering and began relocating. You know, and so this was an existential threat to Thailand from a financial point of view. What that meant was the Thai government needed to spring into action to either correct the problem and or performatively seem like they were correcting the problem.

Unknown Man: The efforts of all government officials and agencies concerned have resulted in the success of Thai society, the success of this country. And we are determined to work further to pursue matter vigorously in order to rid the country of this modern slavery.

Ian Urbina: When I went back to Thailand for the second round of reporting, one of the things I wanted to look at was how the Thai government was handling that pressure and what they were doing successfully or unsuccessfully to correct these problems. And so I negotiated access to their inspection regime, both in port and at sea. And that means basically where the Navy would be going offshore and they would be boarding fishing vessels and spot checking them for environmental and human rights crimes.

Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: Gun patrol. And then the one will just be which one of the frigates it is.

Man aboard Boat: Exactly.

Ian Urbina: I understand. And then what's the cruise signs here? You would be a fool if you're a journalist and you think that you are getting invited to witness something, that that something is going to be anything less than a dog and pony show. So I knew full well that this embed would be not a true rendering of what these inspections are actually like. Because I was there. I think what we're asking specifically though is after you’ve secured the vessel, what we'd like to do is take some of the crew off and sit down with them for twenty minutes.

Man aboard Boat: (Indistinct) Just make sure you’re not trespassing unless you get permission from the man.

Ian Urbina: Right.

Man aboard Boat: I'm just imagining a scenario…

Ian Urbina: On the one hand, Thailand has to be credited for the fact that they were really trying to lean into this, and they put a lot of resources in terms of the Navy and gave them jurisdiction to go out and board ships, which historically they had not been allowed to do and all these things. But from the very get go of the inspections that I was witnessing, there were huge problems. Starting with, you had a about eight to ten heavily armed, machine gun-carrying soldiers that would first board the fishing vessel before the inspectors or anyone else could get on board. And they would search the ship all the way top to bottom. They would corral the crew into one spot, pat the guys down and aggressively sort of move them around and bark orders at them.

Shouting in Thai and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: If the goal here was to actually interview these very guys as potential victims of a crime, they were being treated as already guilty culprits of crimes. And that was going to lead to a situation where these migrant workers, these deckhands, would in no way feel safe to actually tell the inspectors what was going on. They would be too rattled and they'd feel like they were about to be the ones to get arrested.

Indistinct Chatter and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: We boarded a good half dozen in the ships and one in particular, I was allowed on 20 minutes after the pat down. All the crew, all the deckhands were corralled and crouching on the front of the ship. Most of these guys were Burmese or Cambodian. They're completely dirty, barefoot, exhausted-looking, really rattled and scared looking. And several of them looked drugged out, to be honest, you know, kind of just out of it. And there were a couple of things that also emerged as fundamental flaws into how this whole thing was being conducted. One was the folks who were in the back row, the folks who were most reluctant to make eye contact, the folks who were seemingly hiding were never the ones that the inspectors went to try to talk to. It was the guys who were sitting at the front who were bright eyed and bushy tailed by comparison, who were very open to talk. Those are the ones that actually got interviewed. If you're truly seeking to find out whether abuse is happening, that's exactly the wrong guy to be aiming at. And then secondarily, the inspectors had no one who spoke the language. You know, so the inspectors were Thai, and they didn't bring any translators. So they were instead having to turn to someone on the vessel who spoke both Thai and the language of the crew, in this case, Khmer. And that typically was the bosun. To figure out that group first. So we need the bosun, who was the engineer… The bosun is this specific person on the ship who's the crew boss. Essentially, he's the intermediary between the crew and the officers. He's typically the ethnicity of the crew. He speaks the language of the crew, but he's loyal to and also speaks the language of the officers, the bosun is the exact person you do not want anywhere near the crew. If you're doing these sorts of interviews, because he's the guy who administers the beatings, administers the killings, who is spying on the crew to make sure they're not thinking about mutiny. And so for the inspectors to turn to the bosun and to have him be the translator of these interviews was, I mean, so screwed up. It was almost comical, darkly so.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: So are we almost ready to move these guys onto the boat?

Unknown Man: Yeah.

Ian Urbina: Alright, so let’s (indistinct). The consequence of doing this in a performative way is that your data is completely misleading. So, for example, at that moment in time, the Thai government was bragging that it had done 50,000 inspections and had not found a single violation, not a one. I mean, when you're doing inspections the way they were doing them, of course you're going to get those outcomes.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: But this whole sort of theater was unfolding in front of me. And I asked the captain as we watched what he thought would be the consequence, whether he worried at all if any of his workers might complain and want to get off the ship and might say that there were problems here or crimes even. And he said, “No, that's impossible. All my papers are in order.” And I remember being struck, you know, like, well, that's it. That sums it all up. If your papers are in order, then you actually are fine. You have to have the bureaucratic theater set up, but if you do that right, then everyone knows their part and plays it, and this is all over.

Captain Speaking Foreign Language

Captain Translation: Consumers of the US and Europe eat our seafood. Everything is fine. Every problem has been fixed by the current government. The boats are correct. The workers are correct. There is no more forced labor.

Waves Crashing and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: I went back to Thailand to see how the Thai government was doing on these problems, but also to check on Lang Long. At this point. Lang Long was being housed in a facility that was run by the Thai government. When I got there, Lang Long was participating in a kind of group art therapy session with about five other trafficking victims, and they were using crayons on the floor on big sheets of paper, and they were instructed to sort of render a story of some sort. And it was really disturbing, you know, because Lang Long, number one, was not really able still to make eye contact or talk with other people there. And where the other drawings had for people and colors and trees, Lang Long’s drawing was lines and blobs. You know, it was just, he was just still really broken.

Water Rustling and Somber Music

Ian Urbina: By this point, you know, we had connected the dots on the supply chain tied to this boat where Lang Long was shackled. And we’d done so through some scrappy kind of gumshoe reporting, which you have to do in this space, which was, you know, I had hired some folks and myself had watched the trucks that visit the port where these fishing boats were coming and watch them unload and then follow the trucks. You have to follow the trucks. There's no other way you can figure out where that fish is going. We’d done that. We connected the dots to the processing plant that enabled us to figure out who the company was. In this case, it was a big company called Thai Union, one of the biggest in Thailand. And then, we were able to connect that processing plan and the type of fish that was coming out of there to, you know, us buyers.

TV Commercial for Cat Food

Commercial Voice Over: New easy open meow mix market select with tender juicy cuts of fresh meats and seafood.

Ian Urbina: As another layer of darkness in the Lang Long story, as if shackling wasn’t enough, was the very product that his vessels were pursuing and providing to the market, it all ends up for either livestock feed or pet food. It just seemed to me like this was yet another indignity in an already bleak story, in that the fish that enslaved this guy wasn't even for human consumption. It was for, you know, cats, dogs, chickens and pigs.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: At the root, this is a problem that is driven by demand. The seafood global market is growing rapidly, and that is happening as ocean stocks are falling rapidly. That's making competition more intense, and it's making this problem of sea slavery all the worse.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: There is this weird mystery when you buy a dollar 99 can of skipjack tuna, and you look at the data, and it seems to indicate that it was pulled out of the water and canned only ten days earlier. It seems impossible that you could pull a tuna from the other side of the planet, out of the water, and within ten days, it's in a can and on the shelf, and it only costs a dollar 99. It seems impossible because it is. You know, that's not the true cost of that can of tuna. The hidden costs that allow that to get to you so quickly and so cheaply are sea slavery and illegal fishing and all sorts of crimes that make that fish so much cheaper than it really is in the true market.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: One way to think about the outlaw ocean is it's the hidden underbelly of our global economy.

Tense Music

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: This problem of slavery is not an aberration. It's not a situation of a couple of bad apples. It's not a deviation. It's the norm. It is a business model. There's a lot of different stakeholders. Be they police, be they officials, be they immigration bureaucrats, all of these things conspire to make a huge industry possible that relies on the use of this kind of labor. Slavery does not exist because of evil people. It exists because we've built an economic system that incentivizes it.

Shannon Service: There are more people in bondage today than ever in human history. And I do think it's damning. I think it's incriminating to the kind of economic system that we continue to live in. The further the owner of the fishing company is away from the actual impact of what's happening on their boats, the more horrific the abuse can be, the more removed the consumers are from what's happening along the supply chain, the more horrific the abuse can be.

Ian Urbina: There is this modern assumption, especially in the West, that we got rid of slavery. You know, it doesn't exist anymore. Child labor, also, gone. And I think what this reporting makes clear is not only is it not gone, but it's fairly pervasive and often occurs with absolute impunity.

Chanting in Foreign Language and Somber Music

Ian Urbina: We do need to update what we think slavery looks like. It may not look like, you know, Africans being shackled and carried across the ocean to be delivered to plantations. Today, it looks different. It looks like Lang Long, who was shackled, but it also looks like the Cambodian boys who are not shackled, but they are debt bonded, they are captive, they are killed if they try to escape. This is what modern day slavery looks like. And until we modernize our understanding of that, we won't even know how to identify it, much less do anything about it.

Intense Music


VO: On the next episode of The Outlaw Ocean…

Broadcaster: Women on Waves has for more than ten years provided abortions and contraception to women who live in countries where terminating pregnancy is illegal.

Rebecca Gompertz: Women on Waves will rent a ship, we sail into the harbor there. We can take women on board. We're sailing to international waters and in international waters the local laws don't apply anymore. News Anchor The boat's arrival, about 100 kilometers south of Guatemala's capital, provoked anger among several Christian organizations. [sound in Spanish] This anti-abortion activists, said, it's a sin. Rebecca Gompertz: No, I don't think of myself as an outlaw. I am a legal loophole. That's what I am.


From CBC Podcasts and the LA Times, this series is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project.

It’s reported and hosted by me, Ian Urbina. Written and produced by Ryan Ffrench. Editing and sound design by Michael Ward. Sound recording by Tony Fowler. Our associate producer is Margaret Parsons. Additional production by Joe Galvin and Marcella Boehler.

This episode features music by: Appleblim, Kodomo, Earthen Sea, Sjors Mans, Smoke Trees, Antarctic Wastelands, Brothel and J.V., Dear Gravity, Himuro Yoshiteru, F.S. Blumm, Melorman and DRWN. Their music is available online at The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and wherever you stream music. Please check out their work.

Additional music by Skot Coatsworth, Britt Brady, Matthew Stephens, Gammatone and Fábio Nascimento.