PHNOM PENH —
At 5 am each morning, Sek Vann, 34, wakes up and heads to his uncle’s sports club near Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh. There, he works about 10 hours a day helping run the place before he goes home to his family.
For some, this might seem like hard work. For Sek Vann, who spent two years in slave-like conditions aboard a Thai fishing vessel, it is not difficult at all.
In an interview with VOA Khmer, Sek Vann says he was tricked into work aboard the ship. He was lucky to escape the fate of many Cambodians, who may not survive the brutal conditions at sea.
Critics of the trade are now calling for more action, including boycotts and international pressure, and Sek Vann’s story is instructive, shedding light on a secretive, dangerous industry.
Sek Vann was born to a poor family in Svay Rieng province. He saw no real way out but to seek work in Thailand.
“Because we were jobless and landless to plant rice, I decided to leave my family, although I knew doing so was risky,” he says.
In early 2010, Sek Vann and about a dozen other men signed up with a middleman in Cambodia to work for a Chinese construction company in China, where, they were told, they would earn $150 to $350 a month.
They first flew to Thailand, where they were instructed to board a boat that would take them to their destination. They were broken into small groups, and they soon realized they were not on transports, but on fishing vessels. “On my boat, there were four Cambodians,” Sek Vann says. “They told us to start working, as fishermen.”
Sek Vann had no idea where he was. He was at sea and fishing. He worked 20 hours a day, catching fish and prawn and repairing the boat. He and the other men had no idea when they would be paid. This went on for months.
“I was sick, because I was working nearly 24 hours a day, with little food,” he says. “I couldn’t stand up any more. I kneeled before the captain and said I wanted to go home, but he refused and still forced me to work.” He promised he would repair machinery on the boat in exchange for his release.
It took six months of begging and working, but in the end, Sek Vann was released. The captain put him ashore, but still he had no pay. “I asked him how much money he could pay me,” Sek Vann recalls. “The owner told me to get the money at a company in Cambodia.”
Sek Vann begins to cry, remembering his homecoming. He made his way back to Cambodia, where he sought out the company. He was told it had been closed because it had been caught cheating its workers out of pay. For two years of work, he made nothing. He believes it was only his ability to fix machinery on the boat that allowed him to make a deal and escape the miserable fate of many others caught in the trade.
“Other people at port told me that there were some fishermen who were killed by severe torture from boat owners, and some died because they were unable to work under such terrible conditions with so little food,” he says. “We worked almost nonstop, and they gave us only five packets of noodles every five days. Whoever dared to protest would be beaten or possibly thrown into the sea for the fish.”
On the boat were Cambodians, Laotians and Burmese. “The boat owner didn’t kill anyone on my boat, but he and his shipmates showed no mercy to any workers who dared to take a rest or even stop working for five minutes,” Sek Vann says. “We had to work like machines.”
Sek Vann is far from unique. Details of the Thai fishing industry are coming under increased scrutiny. The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper recently completed a six-month investigation into the Thai shrimping industry, revealing widespread abuse. And the Guardian reports that the U.S. is considering censuring Thailand—its largest source of fish products—in its upcoming Trafficking in Persons report.
In Cambodia, human rights workers say there is no exact data on how many Cambodians enter the trade, but it is likely widespread.
Even if the dangers are known, extreme poverty can push some Cambodians toward working abroad anyway, says Lim Mony, who runs a program for women and children for the rights group Adhoc.
“I’ve worked with them for years, and their answers are the same,” she says. “If they have a choice, they won’t go to other countries. But they have to take the risk.” In some cases, those who seek work abroad are never heard from again, she says. “We believe they died.”
There are harrowing tales from those who survive. Hoy Pich Sovann, who heads a labor program at the Community Legal Education Center in Phnom Penh, says tales of starvation and torture are common, where workers are treated “just like animals.”
“Workers have told us of captains who force workers to sleep in rows, and then take their guns and shoot them at random,” he says. “The ones who get shot will be thrown into the sea for the fish.”
As estimated 400,000 Cambodians crossed the border to Thailand in 2012, according to the rights group Caram. More than three-fourths of these are illegal. Most went to work as fishermen, where they are purchased by captains, says Ya Navuth, Caram’s executive director.
“If you have a kind captain, you can get a little payment,” he says. “If you don’t, you just work for many years like a slave. If you are weak or sick, the captain won’t spend time curing you; he’ll just throw you into the sea.”
Critics say the government has not done enough to create jobs that would keep Cambodians home, and it has not worked to ensure the safety of those who do go abroad.
However, Heng Sour, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, says it has not ignored rescued workers. But before the ministry comes up with a full plan to help solve the problem, it must work with the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand to get proper data and to know where the workers are, he says.
“We have done many rescue missions, many times,” he says. He admits that some workers are cheated and enslaved. “I don’t think that everyone faces the same tragedy, so we have to make sure we find enough information first.”
For Sek Vann, the risk of tragedy is too high. “Two years working like a slave on that boat will be an unforgettable, nightmarish memory for me in this life,” he says. “I beg everyone to work in Cambodia; it’s better.”