Prum Annan Vanak was 27 when he left his home in a remote corner of Pursat province for Thailand. It was, he thought, a prudent decision: his wife was seven months pregnant and the neighboring country would offer the temporary work and resources to sustain his struggling family. The border-crossing was illegal, he recalled later, but the promise of a well-paid job lured him nonetheless. He set course for Thailand in 2006, smuggled in the bed of a pickup truck.
It would be four years before Prum returned to Cambodia. His plans for a brief stint of opportunism fell to a nightmarish reality of abuse, imprisonment and virtual slavery in the Thai fishing industry. He narrowly escaped and has since become an artist and activist who was recently awarded by the US Secretary of State.
Prum’s story is not uncommon. But his rare escape and subsequent activism shed light on the dangers posed to men like him in the shadowy world of forced labor. In it, labor brokers between those seeking work and those seeking workers to exploit capitalize on young men in impoverished areas, promising paid employment in a profitable industry. The brokers pawn the young men off to abuse employers who have little to fear from the law. Prum Annan Vanak says many of the men trapped aboard these vessels are Cambodians.
Alongside other many other men smuggled from Cambodia, Prum indeed “found work” in Thailand. The group was placed on a Thai fishing boat, on which they labored in dangerous conditions for three years. A typical day onboard the boat entailed little sleep, from four hours to none, and little food, amid the frequent and unpredictable storms of the South China Sea. No employee received pay. Attempts at escape typically failed.
In 2009, Prum made an effort for freedom that at first proved successful. Shortly after midnight, when the ship was anchored 4 kilometers off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, he and another fisherman managed to jump ship and swim to shore. He turned himself into the Malaysian police, facing a desperately risky ultimatum.
“I [surrendered] myself to [either] be imprisoned, or let the police hand me over to the Cambodian Embassy as a way to go back to Cambodia,” Prum told VOA Khmer. “I did not wish to stay and work in Malaysia. I only wished to return to Cambodia.”
He was imprisoned by Malaysian authorities until two men purchased him—this time for work on a palm oil plantation. He found himself once again in the throes of slavery, receiving little more for his labor than a stipend for cigarettes. After several months of work, an altercation with a fellow laborer landed him in another detention facility, but this time circumstances proved more favorable. He was able to contact Malaysian and Cambodian human rights groups, who helped broker his release.
He made it home in May of 2010, where he met his 4-year-old daughter for the first time.
Now, Prum has become an activist against human labor trafficking. Hindsight informs the advice he gives. He condemns deceptively disguised shortcuts–following a labor broker, for example–in favor of the “legal way.” He draws illustrations of his experiences to further explain his plight and raise awareness.
“I faced hardship,” he told VOA Khmer at the US State Department recently, where he was honored for his work. “I know it.”
He speaks little to no English, but relies on art to convey his experiences, crafting vivid, authentic depictions of human slavery in the 21st Century. In one drawing, a fishing boat braves a tempest, as men strain under the weight of heavy loads. In it stands a scraggly man with matted hair, Prum’s representation of himself.
As human trafficking increasingly garners world attention, Prum’s work has put him in the spotlight. On June 18, Prum was one of 10 individuals recognized at the State Department in a ceremony honoring the year’s anti-trafficking Heroes. The presentation of the Heroes accompanied the release of this year’s Trafficking in Persons report, in which Cambodia is named as a country still not doing enough to combat trafficking. In the ceremony, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated Prum and the others.
Before the ceremony, Prum was jubilant – not at his recognition, but at the recognition of the broader issue of labor trafficking.
“I am so happy that they are taking effort,” he said. “It’s splendid.”