Ghost fleet: former slaves and the woman bringing them home (video)

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A hard-hitting documentary looking at slavery in the Thailand fishing and seafood industries premiered in Mexico on Tuesday, the latest in a series of international screenings bringing the dark underbelly of the Thai seafood and fishing industries into the public spotlight.

Produced by Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron, Ghost Fleet takes a confronting look at the harsh conditions endured by migrant fishers through the eyes of former slaves… and the efforts of one woman to bring them home.

Patima Tungpuchayakul, co-founder of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN)
Patima Tungpuchayakul, co-founder of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) Patima Tungpuchayakul

Focusing on the work of Patima Tungpuchayakul, co-founder of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), Ghost Fleet takes you deep inside the inhospitable living and working conditions endured by those who catch the fish we eat. A workplace where ordinarily easily treatable illnesses often result in death. A place of employment that workers can not simply quit and walk home from.

When Thai authorities ramped up inspections of fishing vessels and crew at shore and at sea, along with an increased focus on registering foreign workers, the answer for some in the Thai fishing industry was to leave trafficked fishers on small islands scattered throughout the Indonesia archipelago until they were needed again. Often the ships never came back. Simply, dead men tell no tales. The ghost fishers of the ghost fleets eventually really became ghosts.

It is from these small islands that Ms Tungpuchayakul and the team from LPN rescued over 4,000 trafficked fishers between August 2014 and October 2016. Fishers who never thought that they would see their homeland again.

Established in 2004 by Ms Tungpuchayakul and her husband Sompong Srakaew, LPN works to raise awareness of chronic rights breaches in the fishing and seafood sectors, and to improve the lives of migrant workers and the laws governing their employment.

It is not a task the some in the fishing industry want to see succeed, and viewers will learn of the constant danger that awaits those who champion human rights against the wishes of a multi-billion dollar industry.

Among the former trafficked fishers viewers will hear from is Tun Lin, a former Burmese human-trafficking victim, who spent 11 years on Thai fishing boats where he says he and his crew mates suffered endless abuse and trauma. The men talk about how they were lured into crossing into Thailand from Myanmar with the promise of factory jobs, only to end up on fishing boats far out of sight of any land.

Thai fishing industry change

Ghost Fleet Trailer | TIFF 2018′
Video: TIFF Trailers

In the five-years since work first commenced on Ghost Fleet the Thai fishing and seafood industries have undergone a dramatic overhauled as part of the country’s battle to rid itself of a “yellow card” issued by the European Union (EU) for unrelated matters. All large fishing vessels were ordered to return to Thailand, and tens of of thousands of non compliant vessels were deregistered and impounded.

Since May 2015 all fishing boats and their crew are inspected entering and leaving port by multiple government agencies, with all fishers required to have government ID. In a further bid to crackdown on human trafficking and slavery the Thailand government last year mounted a concerted migrant worker registration programme.

Nationwide 961,946 migrant workers were registered and verified between February 5 and March 31, with a further 360,222 waiting for document verification. Registration provides employees with a work permit and access to Thailand’s social welfare and medical systems, as well as benefits for the family of migrant workers.

In the wake of the programme Thailand also introduced harsher anti-trafficking laws, including fines of up to Bt400,000 (about US$12,516) and/or imprisonment for up to four years. More severe penalties apply if a victim is harmed. (See: Thailand and Cambodia cooperate on cross border migrant workers).

On May 14 Thailand’s Criminal Court convicted 44 defendants, including a former Thailand army general, of money laundering human trafficking. The convictions and penalties came on top of those delivered in July 2017 when former Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan received a 78-year sentence for human trafficking.

The Thailand government’s crackdown on the the fishing and seafood industries has drawn scathing criticism from fishing boat owners.

The Thailand fishing sector currently has vacancies for more than 42,000 fishers, with the migrant worker registration process and provisions under the recently signed signed Work in Fishing Convention No 188, 2007 (WIFC) being blamed (See: Thailand leads Asia-Pacific in improving fishers lives).

While Ghost Fleet is billed as a look at ‘modern day slavery in the Thai fishing industry’, much has changed during the course of its production. It does, however, serve as a harsh reminder of the human toll of getting a portion of fish on our plates, the cost of failing to remain vigilant, and the need for greater education by governments on how to work safely and legally abroad.



Feature video Abramorama Inc




  • Thai fishing industry says new laws are ‘unrealistic’ (The Thaiger)
  • Thailand wants Myanmar workers for its fishery sector (Myanmar Times)
  • Thailand ratifies ILO convention on workers in fishing industry (The Nation)
  • EU gives Thailand’s reformed fishing industry a green card (Euro News)



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John Le Fevre

Thailand editor at AEC News Today

John is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer, and copy editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Prior to AEC News Today he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

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