On most nights, Nara* was allowed to sleep no more than a few hours before he was forced to resume his gruelling routine of casting nets, sorting the catch and mending damaged nets, all while being watched by a captain eager to deliver a beating to any deckhand he thought was slacking.
Nara had paid people smugglers in Cambodia, who promised him a factory job in Thailand, but they tricked him and he ended up as a slave on a fishing vessel on the high seas.
“I worked on the boat for three years but was never paid anything,” Nara said. Like other trafficking victims interviewed by IRIN, he asked that his real name not be used.
Nara was just 20 when he was approached by a smuggler in 2008, who offered him a factory job in Thailand with a monthly salary of US$200, roughly three times what he would get for similar work in Cambodia.
By the time he realized that he had been tricked, he was already in a foreign country and under the control of violent bosses. He soon found himself forced onto a boat that set out for Malaysian waters and docked once a month on desolate islands.
Poverty and limited job opportunities make desperate Cambodians easy prey for middlemen, who procure slave labour for Thailand’s huge fishing industry.
A lack of real recourse for the victims feeds this cycle of exploitation, say monitors. Official corruption, legal loopholes and poor protection means migrant workers are unable to take perpetrators to court, or even seek compensation.
Nara escaped at last when the boat had to put into port, and eventually, through the help of an anti-trafficking NGO, was repatriated to Cambodia. When he got back, the police met with him only once for a short interview about his ordeal.
Rights workers who monitor the trafficking of Cambodians to Thailand to work in the fishing industry say despite the scale of abuse, they are not aware of a single successful prosecution.
“Under Thai criminal and labour law, such a person should have a chance to pursue justice against his offender, as well as receive financial compensation,” says Lisa Rende Taylor, chief technical advisor at the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP).
Victims fear reprisal or are reluctant to step up as witnesses because they are kept in government shelters during subsequent legal processes, and this might prevent them from working and being with their families while their case is going forward, she said.
Stranded on land
Kunthea, another Cambodian victim who asked that her real name not be used, finds herself in a similar situation. At 18, drawn by a recruitment company in Phnom Penh, the capital, who offered Cambodian women jobs as domestic workers in Malaysia, and promised to monitor the labour conditions, Kunthea enlisted.
In Malaysia, her employers gave her one meal per day, beat her with a belt when they were dissatisfied with her work, and never paid her. After a year, she overcame her fear of setting out on her own in a country where she didn’t speak the language and had no family or friends, and fled her employer’s home.
“When I applied for the job, the company said their staff would visit us,” says Kunthea. “They said they would be responsible for us.” Her attempts to receive payment from the recruitment agency in Phnom Penh have been fruitless.
Women like Kunthea are particularly vulnerable to abuse, and unable to hold their abusers accountable because domestic work is not recognized as an official category of work in either Cambodian or Malaysian labour law.
Victims must therefore rely on anti-trafficking laws, which don’t necessarily cover these abuses, while criminal codes require a high level of abuse before they can be applied and are often poorly tailored to defending the rights of workers.
“Criminal law does not provide restitution for a range of work-related abuses, like withholding pay, overtime provisions, and other decent work standards like maternity leave and disability protections,” says Max Tunon, a senior officer of the International Labour Organization, which is lobbying countries in the region to allow migrant workers to join local labour unions so that they have some protection.
“Migrants should be able to benefit from collective bargaining agreements, and to negotiate for improved terms of employment and working conditions,” says Tunon. As members of labour unions, migrant workers would also benefit from “union workplace inspections that could improve the health and safety conditions in their workplace”.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant at Licadho, a Cambodian human rights NGO, says the absence of regulation starts in Cambodia, with basic human rights abuses occurring in the recruitment company’s pre-departure training centres.
“The [Cambodian] state has proven it’s not willing to act as a proper regulator,” he said. “These criminal acts are going unpunished - the court track record speaks for itself.”
According to UNIAP, in 2009 an estimated 20,000 Cambodian deportees from Thailand were labour trafficking victims - a figure that is likely to increase, given Thailand’s growing labour shortages in low-skilled industries.
*not his real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions