Slaves of the Sea

Human trafficking and serious exploitation are a widespread plague among fishermen worldwide. Covid-19 has further aggravated the situation. The Apostleship of the Sea, a Catholic foundation at the service of sailors celebrates its centenary.

Phyoe Kyi is a Burmese fisherman of 29 years. One of his arms shows a large tattoo. The other bears two deep scars, his fingers are twisted like talons and he barely raises his eyes out of fear.  For the past two years, Kyi was forced to work eighteen hours a day as a slave on the high seas, suffered regular beatings from his captain and had only a plate of rice to eat per day. He saw dry land only rarely. All his dreams ended on this boat. Two years ago, he left his village in the south of Burma, in search of work.

He recalls: “I had paid a middleman to take me across the border into Thailand and find work in a factory.” After a difficult journey through dense jungle and rough roads, he arrived in Kantang, a Thai port on the west coast of the Andaman Sea where he finds he has been sold to the captain of a boat. “When I saw what had happened, I tried to escape but they beat me and brought me on board the boat together with another thirteen Burmese men.”

For the next twenty months, Kyi and three other Burmese men who had also been sold to the boat, sailed in international waters, catching all sorts of fish from squid and tuna to ‘throwaway fish’, also called accessories – species of fish that cannot be sold but are ground into fish meal to supply the multi-billion Thai prawn-farming industry. He wanted only one thing and that desire kept him alive: “As soon as I get the chance, I am going to escape.”

Under the iron-sheet roof in the commercial port of Songkhla, on the south-east coast of Thailand, Hnin Zin is unloading the catch, barrel after barrel. “They told me I would be working in a pineapple factory,” twenty-one-year old Zin recalls. “When I saw that boat, I realised I had been sold … I was so depressed, I wanted to die.”

Zin continues: “I was just trying to help my family. One day this fellow came and told me he could find work for me in Thailand. I sold my livestock and left. With twenty others we travelled in a convoy of small trucks. Then we walked for days through the jungle. There was no footpath. Some of us died and others were left behind. When I saw the fishing boats I realised I had been sold. I was so sick on the boat I couldn’t work. They kicked me and tortured me and then they beat me nearly every day. Sometimes the captain would shout at me and point a gun in my face. There were twelve of us in one boat. One night, two fellows tried to escape. The skipper took one and beat him. Then he tortured him with electric shocks. Then he shot him and threw him into the sea.”

Father Bruno Ciceri, a Scalabrinian missionary, the Director of the International Apostleship of the Sea who has been fighting for years to rescue Asian fishermen, says: “On the seas of Asia, between China and Thailand, thousands of men are taken on board fishing boats no longer than thirty metres, where they are kept as hostages of the fishing companies, never returning to land for long periods. Their living conditions are inhuman: there is little food and no rest.”

“The fishermen working on these long-distance boats hardly ever return to land,” the missionary tells us. “Before going on board, they sign a contract, lasting three years. They receive twenty of fifty dollars when they leave and the remaining 100 dollars when the three years are up, if they live that long.”

It is impossible to imagine what happens on board the boats: months and months pass and then years and years of isolation, beatings, blackmail and extremely hard work.

Father Bruno recounts how these slave-fishermen have to catch fish and partly process them for 16 to 18 hours without a break, every day. Fatal accidents often happen on the boats. It is not unusual to see fishermen who have lost a limb or fingers: there is practically no protection for the fishermen.

Besides all this, the fish have to be frozen when they are caught. This is another job to be done: the workers stand for hours and hours in freezing water and their feet are often affected by frostbite. This leads to amputation.

“The fishing takes various forms,” Father Bruno explains. “Sometimes they use a long line: this is a line that may be five kilometres long, with hooks attached along its length. The fishermen begin to haul it in at the right moment and this phase lasts a very long time. The hooks are very sharp, and it just takes a moment of distraction to be pierced by them.”

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) makes reports and imposes sanctions on governments, but these are disregarded. Obviously, the economy must go ahead no matter what the cost. A recent report of The Maritime Executive tells how the business is running well and that profits from exports from the Thai fishing sector amounted to $5.5 billion in 2017.

The Covid-19 virus has made the situation of the fishermen even worse. Many of them have been left on the ships on the high seas without being able to disembark at the ports. Some companies redirected the ships towards ports where the borders had not been closed.

The situation is dramatic also for cruise and merchant ships. Some arms dealers or unscrupulous leaders are using the Coronavirus as a pretext for not respecting contracts, not paying workers and not guaranteeing their rights. Father Ciceri speaks of around 200/250 thousand workers being kept on board since it is not possible to change the crews because of the pandemic.

Father Ciceri says that often, these workers do not even know their own rights and are not aware of how badly they are treated. “All too often, the workers are not recognised as such by the countries they go to and even run the risk of becoming criminals because they collaborate in illegal fishing or work as irregular migrants. The trade and exploitation have a devastating effect on their families who are often in need of assistance and support. The victims need medical care, legal advice and education in order to return to being regular workers and so avoid the danger of being trafficked.”

The celebrations for the centenary of the foundation of the Apostleship of the Sea, the Catholic organisation that cares for sailors, fishermen and their families all over the world, were due to take place in Glasgow on 4 October. Instead, due to the Coronavirus, a Mass was streamed while being celebrated in the Scottish cathedral of Saint Andrew by the Archbishop of Glasgow, together with some programmes on various themes.

It was here that, in 1893, the first steps were taken to set in motion a more structured form of assistance for seagoing people. It was only in 1899 that the Jesuit priest formed the first branch of the Apostolate at the Clydeside port. More than 200,000 people joined in less than ten years. However, it was not until 4 October 1920, that the Apostleship of the Sea was re-founded in the city of Glasgow. “A hundred years have passed since then,” wrote Cardinal Peter Turkson in the message for the 2020 Sea Sunday “and this ministry has grown and adapted to the continual transformation of the maritime industry, remaining faithful, however, to its initial mission of revealing Christ to those who sail on the sea in ships, and work in deep waters, to lead them to a greater knowledge of Christ and his Church.”

“The Church has always been close to the people of the sea. After all, Jesus himself began his work with fishermen,” says Father Bruno Ciceri.

Today, the Apostleship of the Sea International has hundreds of chaplains and volunteers scattered in three hundred ports throughout the world who carry out seventy thousand visits to ships and contact over a million sailors.


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