Alum’s work fights slavery on the high seas.

Thousands of men are forced to work as slave laborers aboard Thai fishing boats. Photo by Jeff Waldron.

By Emily Harrison Weir

The last thing Asorasak Thamma recalled was drinking in a Thai karaoke bar. He woke up a slave. On a boat.

Thamma had been drugged, kidnapped, and sold to a fishing fleet crewed by forced labor, joining tens of thousands of other men in Southeast Asia held captive aboard untraceable Thai fishing vessels. The boats stay at sea for years—a sort of ghost fleet—as the crew is forced to work nearly around the clock, fueled by amphetamines and fed only rice and fish that would otherwise be thrown away. Injuries and infections are frequent. Brutal beatings prevent mutiny.

The story will be told in a feature-length documentary film, The Ghost Fleet, produced by Mount Holyoke College alumna Shannon Service ’97 and directed by Jeffrey Waldron. It will give a rare glimpse into this modern-day slave trade, and how it connects to the fish on our own dinner plates.

Finding the story.

In 2012, Service and colleague Becky Palmstrom broke the story on National Public Radio. Their two-part audio series shed light on how men from Myanmar and Cambodia were tricked or kidnapped and moved through Thai ports and out to sea, while corrupt officials either colluded or looked the other way.

“Often I was the first person to ask these men about their experience,” said Service. “It was therapeutic for them to tell their story, but it was heartbreaking for me to discover how surprised they were that anybody cared.”

But people did care. The NPR series sparked immediate outrage, and things started to change.

“There’s been much progress in the last three years,” Service said. “There’s been a lot of reporting by major news outlets, the US Senate has gotten involved, and the Obama administration says it wants to eliminate slavery from the US government food-supply chain.”

That’s significant, since the US consumer market is one of the biggest buyers of Thai fish, Service noted.

Everything is connected.

The slave trade is only one link in a complex, multinational chain.

“The entire issue of slavery in the Gulf of Thailand fishing industry is driven by overfishing,” said Service, noting that rising global demand has led to overfishing. Ships now must travel farther from shore to reach the fish. Fishermen aren’t eager to leave their homes and families for months at a time, so the Thai fishing fleet is short some 60,000 mariners in a typical year. That gap is filled with forced labor provided by human traffickers.

“If you want to end slavery, you need to end overfishing,” Service said. “To do that, we need more enforcement of maritime laws and more monitoring of ships in port. Right now, it’s like the Wild West; it’s the outlaw ocean.”

A catalyst for change.

Service views her work as half journalism, half ethnography, which is fitting because she was an anthropology major at Mount Holyoke before getting a master’s in environmental journalism.

“Mount Holyoke was huge for me,” she said. “Because I have this anthropological lens, I understand things very differently than I would otherwise—such as how power structures work, and the importance of bigger, deeper storytelling. If you want to shift the agenda, you need to spend long periods of time doing the bedrock reporting that other journalists can build on.”

Service has been an investigative reporter and producer for print, radio, and TV, traveling internationally to cover everything “from the ravages of war to the intimacies of heartbreak.”

“As a journalist, I go into places where there are shadows. And where there are shadows, there is injustice,” she said. “Our job is to cast a bit of light into the shadows through storytelling, using solid facts and reputable reporting.”

The finished Ghost Fleet documentary will be Service’s call for more sweeping worldwide action to shut down the slave fleet.

“We’re hoping that the film will make more companies and governments want to take action,” she said. “We hope that connecting the stories in the hearts of these fishermen with the hearts of the American public will move people.”

Some of the stories end tragically, with slave laborers killed at sea or re-enslaved after escaping their first captor.

After two years away from land, Thamma—the man kidnapped from the Thai karaoke bar—finally got the chance to break free. When the ship he was on came ashore in Borneo, he punched and kicked the crew boss and fled. After wandering in a land where he couldn’t speak the language, Thamma was eventually taken in by a kind fisherman. Today—with help from Service—Thamma returned home to Thailand and is a farmer rather than a slave at sea. Many aren’t so lucky.

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