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Locked in cages and whipped with toxic stingray tails: The Burmese slaves forced to catch fish that ends up in supermarkets, restaurants and pet shops across America

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  • Men from Burma are being forced to fish in Indonesia, investigation reveals
  • They face physical abuse including being whipped with toxic stingray tails
  • Seafood they catch then ends up in major supply networks across America
  • Slaves are locked up in cages in the Indonesian island village of Benjina

 

Seafood caught by slave fishermen is ending up in supermarkets, restaurants and pet shops across America, an investigation has found.

Burmese men are being kept in cages on a tiny Indonesian island and forced to fish – or risk being kicked, beaten and whipped with stingray tails.

Seafood caught by the slaves is entering major supply networks in the US with tainted produce appearing in sushi, canned pet food and bags of frozen fish, it is claimed.

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Slaves are being locked up in cages on a tropical Indonesian island and forced to catch fish which ends up in US supply chains

Slaves are being locked up in cages on a tropical Indonesian island and forced to catch fish which ends up in US supply chains

Workers in Benjina, Indonesia, load fish onto a cargo ship bound for Thailand. Seafood caught by slaves mixes in with other fish at a number of sites in Thailand, including processing plants

Workers in Benjina, Indonesia, load fish onto a cargo ship bound for Thailand. Seafood caught by slaves mixes in with other fish at a number of sites in Thailand, including processing plants

The Associated Press says the men were brought to the village of Benjina through Thailand and the fish they are forced to catch is shipped back to Thailand before entering the global commerce stream.

It claims 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 also 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.

There are also suggestions 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 dinner tables.

In a year-long investigation, the AP interviewed more than 40 current and former slaves in Benjina.

It charted 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 Thai harbor.

Upon its arrival, 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.

Men kept as slaves in Indonesia: ‘We were tricked into work’
Captive: A security guard talks to detainees inside a cell at the compound of a fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia

Captive: A security guard talks to detainees inside a cell at the compound of a fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia

Locked up: The men are forced to work 22-hour shifts or risk being kicked, beaten and whipped with stingray tails

Some fishermen, risking their lives, begged 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. US Customs records show that several of those Thai factories ship to America.

They also ship to Europe and Asia, but the Associated Press traced shipments to the US, where trade records are public.

The major corporations identified by AP declined interviews but issued statements that strongly condemned labor abuses. Many described their work with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.

National Fisheries Institute spokesman Gavin Gibbons, speaking on behalf of 300 US seafood firms that make up 75 percent 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 labor 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.

An investigation suggests seafood caught by the slaves is ending up in major supply networks in the US with tainted produce appearing in sushi, canned pet food and bags of frozen fish

An investigation suggests seafood caught by the slaves is ending up in major supply networks in the US with tainted produce appearing in sushi, canned pet food and bags of frozen fish

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.’

In the small harbor in the village is a five-story office compound which includes the cage with the slaves, AP reports.

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 company owner Panya Luangsomboon. ‘We’re separated from the fishing boats.’

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.

Frozen seafood is off-loaded from a refrigerated 3,000-ton cargo ship in Thailand.  The ship belongs to the Silver Sea Reefer Co. but the company said it is not involved with the slave fishermen

Frozen seafood is off-loaded from a refrigerated 3,000-ton cargo ship in Thailand. The ship belongs to the Silver Sea Reefer Co. but the company said it is not involved with the slave fishermen

Inside those plants, representatives said they sold seafood to other Thai processors and distributors. US 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 labor 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 US Customs records.

Slaves use this warehouse in Benjina as a makeshift dormitory after finishing shifts that last up to 22 hours

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