Looking back, Prasert Sriwaurai isn’t sure what stopped the crew from killing their skipper. But he can’t forget the anguish that drove them to discuss, in whispered voices, whether a body thrown into the depths of the ocean would ever be discovered.
For years, the fishermen had been trapped at sea in brutal conditions – forced to work or face being beaten with barbed stingray tails, scalded by boiling water and woken up with hammer blows. For many desperate to escape the boat, murder felt like the only option.
“I just feel pity, thinking about it,” said Sriwaurai, now a 60-year-old monk in a remote village in northeastern Thailand. “I feel pitiful for myself and others. We just wanted to go home, but were stopped and pushed to the point where we discussed killing. It’s pitiful.”
Sriwaurai’s six years held captive are a far cry from the life he expected when he joined the boat in 2009, lured by the promise of a monthly salary of 10,000 baht (£230) and decent conditions.
It would be seven years before Sriwaurai saw his family again, or stepped foot back in Thailand. While his daughter and mother feared the worst, he was trapped on a boat in conditions “not even fit for a slave”.
The ship spent most of its time in southern Indonesia – more than 2,500 miles from Sriwaurai’s Thai home.
“There was no time to eat, no time to sleep – really, it was torture,” Sriwaurai told the Telegraph, pointing to the burn marks on his leathery skin. “They would scald us with boiling water and, if we didn’t wake up in time, they would hit us with the pipe or a hammer… The [skipper] didn’t think of us as humans. I don’t know what he thought of us as, but we weren’t human.”
Across the globe, close to 130,000 people remain trapped in forced labour on fishing vessels, according to the latest estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Often deep at sea, it is a “workplace characterised by extreme isolation, hazardousness, and gaps in regulatory oversight”.
The issue has been particularly acute in Thailand, where the fishing industry is worth more than £6 billion. Roughly a decade ago, a series of reports revealed the shocking scale of modern slavery and exploitation within the Thai trawler fleet – physical abuse, wage theft and human trafficking were rampant. Sriwaurai’s story seems extreme, in fact it was all too common.
Then, in 2015, the European Union issued Thailand with a “yellow card”, which signalled that the government was not sufficiently tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and could have led to a complete ban on imports of Thai seafood and fish into the bloc. They also warned that labour protections were weak. It was a wake-up call for the government, and led to enough change that the EU lifted the warning in 2019.
Rights groups have welcomed many of the measures – especially provisions which require boats to dock every 30 days, an effort to prevent ships staying in the deep sea for months or years. Thailand also became the first country in Asia to ratify the international Work in Fishing Convention.
But they warn that major loopholes persist, and momentum to tackle them is waning. According to an index produced by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, Thailand remained among the “worst performers” in terms of prevalence of IUU fishing in its fleet in 2021, alongside countries including Taiwan and China.
“As part of the promises to the European Union, Thailand had to amend its trafficking in persons law, to also make forced labour a crime under Thai law,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, told a recent panel. “But so far, there’s been almost no action by the Thai authorities on issues of forced labour.”
He added that the government has done “very little” to educate law enforcement agencies about what forced labour is, contributing to a lack of “practical implementation of the law”. None of the fleet owners or captains who have committed abuses have gone to prison, for instance.
“The Thai government has been busy declaring victory, [saying] that they basically succeeded in ending this human trafficking… don’t believe it, they’re playing games,” Robertson said. “This situation is an unfinished agenda, and forced labour is still present on fishing boats that are going from Thai ports.”
‘Endless sea and sky’
Patima Tungpuchayakul, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and co-founder of the Labour Protection Organization, agreed. The group has helped close to 5,000 fishermen escape modern slavery, including nearly 2,000 captive and stranded fishermen stuck in Indonesia. It was there, in a hamlet called Benjina on the remote Aru islands, that she met Sriwaurai.
The fishermen had spent six years trapped in cramped, brutal conditions aboard a Thai trawler ship. During that time, he had just four separate weeks of rest on land, as the boat would generally transfer its haul and pick up supplies from a ‘mother ship’.
“Sometimes we’d see other ships, but we’d never see land. It was just endless sea and sky,” Sriwaurai said, adding that daily life was just as repetitive. “To work in the fishing ship, it was 24/7 – everyday, rain or shine… It was just a constant cycle of dropping the net, sorting the fish, pulling up a full net, sorting the fish.”
The pattern was punctured only by violence and mistreatment. “Even when we were really sick, the skipper made us work… some men died as a result. Really, it was torture.”
In Sriwaurai’s case, the lack of medical care cost him his left eyesight. As the crew were separating the species in their haul, chucking fish into various piles across the deck, an awry throw slapped his eye. Denied access to a doctor, Sriwaurai eventually went blind.
Horrific cases like this have become less common since the extent of exploitation was exposed and boats made to dock more regularly. But financial and legal abuse remains a huge unresolved issue.
“For example, the government now says that people have to be paid via a bank transaction, so there is a paper trail that officers can check,” Tungpuchayakul told the Telegraph. “But often the employers make bank accounts for the fishermen, and then withdraw the cash and keep a big segment of it.”
That policy shift had been deeply unpopular across the industry, Robertson added, triggering an “ongoing effort to try to undermine that system” by a sector that “has not changed its spots”.
As well as wage theft, many employers also say they will only pay at the end of 12 month or two year long contracts, which can leave them stuck in poor conditions.
“There have been very substantial legislative changes made in Thailand in recent years… [but] from what we’ve seen, it’s still more the norm than the exception that migrants are not being paid the full wages they are due,” said Ben Harkins, technical officer for the ILO’s ship to shore rights programme in southeast Asia. “The withholding of identification documents and ATM cards as well is very, very widespread.”
‘Stuck in a cell’
This also relates to visa issues. Many of the Thai ships still travel to foreign waters and dock in international ports as they search for fish, and undocumented migrants form a significant chunk of the workforce – this group are especially vulnerable to financial exploitation.
Last month, Tungpuchayakul helped six Thai fishermen who had languished in jail in Malaysia for seven months, charged with working on tourist visas. Their employers had taken their passports, ostensibly to complete the relevant paperwork, but never did.
When the men – all from the same village in Thailand’s Deep South – were arrested, the company left them to fend for themselves.
“The cell was about 2m by 3m, for six people,” Suchet Yeesan, 34, told the Telegraph during a video call a week after returning home. “I was angry, as we were just trying to earn enough money to support our family, and instead they were stressed and we were in prison.”
“They weren’t stuck on a boat, but they were stuck in a cell,” added Tungpuchayakul, who went to Penang to ensure their release. “The cases show how exploitation has changed. The problem is that authorities don’t have a proactive approach to ensure people working in this profession are protected. And they focus on tiny errors in documentation, rather than workers’ conditions, pay or visas.
“There’s been improvements… but there’s still a lot of work needed to improve the quality of life for fishermen,” she added. “I think standardised law enforcement, so there’s a clear plan of what officers have to do in a certain situation, and proactive searches would be an important starting point.”
‘Ordained until my dying breath’
Like the fisherman in Malaysia, it was the Labour Protection Network that helped Sriwaurai come home.
After two failed attempts – which landed him briefly in jail, then right back where he started – the fisherman finally escaped the boat while it was docked in late 2014, fleeing into the forest and taking refuge with a local Indonesian family. He had no savings, no phone and little hope of returning to Thailand.
“I thought I was going to die in Indonesia,” Sriwaurai said. Instead, he met Tungpuchayakul, who was on a mission to ensure fishermen like him could return home. Once back in Thailand, the Labour Protection Network offered Sriwaurai a place to stay as he found his feet, and helped him claim limited compensation of 80,000 baht (£1,900) through the Thai courts (the equivalent of around £315 a year for his work and injury).
It was also Tungpuchayakul who first suggested Sriwaurai should be ordained a monk.
“At this point I loved alcohol too much… I was addicted. So Patima said, ‘I think you should get ordained and break the cycle’,” he said, adding that it is forbidden for monks to drink. “To start with I was unconvinced, but the more I read and learned about the Buddist teaching and the role I could play, the more inspired I became.”
“It’s a very different life from before,” Sriwaurai added, gesturing at the tall, gold-plated temple in Nong Mue Noi, a small village in the northeastern province of Yasothon.
“The Buddhist teachings teach you to be kind, think of others, to care and be mindful. And it’s actually helped to learn not to hold onto the past – that you are living for today and all you can do is keep on doing good in life. If I have my way, I want to stay here, ordained, until my dying breath.”