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Slavery at sea: Soe’s story

May. 8, 2018 / Blog The Freedom Fund / @freedom_fund

A few years ago, a broker smuggled Soe into Thailand from Myanmar along with six other friends. Soe thought he was being hired to work at a wood factory, but he didn’t know that he’d been tricked. Forced labour and human trafficking are rampant in the Thai fishing industry, where migrant workers are often lured into situations of slavery aboard fishing vessels and in seafood processing plants. Soe was one of them. Freedom Fund partner Foundation for Education and Development (FED) provided him with basic care, shelter and food following his ordeal.

Soe’s broker smuggled the young group to Songkhla, Thailand, after having slept overnight in a huge palm oil farm. In Songkhla, Soe and his friends were locked in a house and kept there for three days without being allowed to go outside. The broker had promised them employment at a wood factory making about $10 per hour. Instead, they were taken to a pier where they were told that they’d be working aboard fishing boats.

Suffering from seasickness and backbreaking labour, Soe and his friends were forced to work on the boat for two years and eight days. During those years Soe wasn’t paid, and he wasn’t allowed to go ashore. Finally, an opportunity for Soe to escape presented itself when the boat reached Koh Samui, Thailand’s second largest island. The boat stopped there to receive fish from another vessel. After loading the fish, Soe’s boat anchored near the island. Under the cover of night, he and three other friends jumped off the boat and swam to the island, hiding in a coconut farm until the next day. They then met another Burmese man who worked on a small local fishing boat.

With the help of this man, they travelled back to mainland Thailand where they found employment aboard a different fishing boat. This time they earned money. However, Soe was found by the Thai authorities, and because he was in the country illegally, he was arrested and detained for two months. After his release, he worked many other jobs in different places, including as a fisherman, rubber tapper and wood factory worker. He eventually got in touch with his uncle who was working at a wood factory. Soe sought employment at his uncle’s workplace, but without proper documentation, he was unable to get hired. He instead found employment as a construction worker.

In June 2017, the Thai government issued new labour laws with penalties for undocumented workers and the companies that employed them. Soe was asked to leave his job due to is illegal status, and he sought out FED for shelter and assistance to return home. Soe knew about the organisation because he had attended FED’s community awareness training in the village where his uncle worked. After conducting interviews with him, his neighbour and his uncle, FED provided Soe with necessary assistance. After one week in FED’s care, Soe decided to return home to Myanmar rather than filing a legal complaint.

FED kept in touch with Soe and helped him travel safely. Now 22 years old, Soe has returned home to Myanmar.

The Freedom Fund’s Thailand hotspot aims to significantly reduce slavery in the Thai seafood industry. Learn more.

Photo credit: Audrey Guichon/Freedom Fund

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