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For ‘seafood slaves’, a journey to hell and back

In this file photo, Burmese crew members await departure on a commercial fishing boat in Thailand. (Photo: Reuters)

“I would never recommend anyone to work at sea,” says a fisherman from Burma who lost four fingers in an accident while on a fishing trawler.

Despite a difficult life as a fisherman, Tunlin knew he had to be patient if he wanted to survive. “I couldn’t give up my life at sea,” said the 34-year-old who returned from Ambon Island in Indonesia last year.

Tunlin is among some 2,900 fishermen who have been rescued and repatriated by the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN). The operation, started in 2014, continues to help both Thais and migrants, mostly from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, stranded in Indonesia.

Recalling his life before Indonesia, Tunlin said he had worked at a shrimp-peeling shed from the age of 16 in Samut Sakhon Province, home to a large Burmese migrant community. But the meagre earnings — 100 baht ($2.90) per day — hardly sufficed.

He decided to take a job on a fishing vessel for better pay, as suggested by one of his close friends.

He was taken to an old building in a slum area where he was locked up for two weeks, before eventually being given a fake seaman’s book — an identity document issued to professional seamen — before setting off on his journey. “Life at sea is uncertain. When you step on a boat, your life belongs to someone else. If you fail to obey the rules, you can either be killed or commit suicide,” he told the Bangkok Post.

But not a single payment was made to his account during the eight years he worked on the trawler. “I had worked in vain.”

Tunlin decided to find a new job and returned to Thailand in June of 2012. However, he was jailed by Samut Sakhon police for not having legal documents. He was later released on bail by the broker who had lured him to work at sea.

“I had no money to repay him. I was torn between being arrested again and returning to my old job at sea. I had no choice but to take the journey to Indonesia,” he said.

Upon his return to Indonesian waters in October 2012, his four fingers were cut off.

“A new crew member on my boat did not see me leading a rope near some pulley wheels. He started the engine without giving a warning. I tried to move my right hand away, but my fingers were already smashed and the bones stuck out,” he said.

The captain did not want to head to land so Tunlin had to jump off the vessel and swim — with his right hand wrapped in a plastic bag — to another vessel whose captain was about to head to Ambon Island.

“I cried all the way swimming to the other vessel. My right hand was bleeding. It was such a painful experience,” he said, recalling the next three nights spent on the vessel before reaching land.

He refused to receive care at a hospital in Indonesia, as he had no faith in its healthcare system. The company paid him 20,000 baht for treatment in Thailand; he has not returned to Indonesia since.

Such a fate is common at sea, said Chairat Rashpaksee, 37, a Thai fisherman who returned from Benjina Island last year. He witnessed his colleagues being physically abused by a Thai supervisor.

He was lured to work at sea in 2002 and rescued by the LPN in 2015.

He received 20,000 baht ($575) in compensation from the company, which he said was not satisfactory.

“Many of us were beaten, while some crew members who died were kept in a refrigerated storage room. They were left with raw fish,” Chairat, who represents a group of abused fishermen, told a panel discussion held at the LPN office to mark the second anniversary of the start of efforts by the Seafarers Action Centre and the LPN to help fishermen return home from Tuan, Benjina, Ambon and Samluky islands.

Tunlin, who speaks Burmese, Thai and Bahasa, now works as a translator at the LPN office to help other migrant workers assess working conditions and ensure their basic rights are protected.

He is calling on state agencies to make more sincere efforts to guarantee basic rights and safe working conditions so that crewmen are protected. “But I will never go back to sea again,” he said.