Burma’s enslaved fishermen

Khin Myat Myat Wai travelled to the Irrawaddy,where she met people whose job is to catch fish and shrimps under slave-like conditions.

By | Mon 1 Oct 2018

While Chiang Mai and the north of Thailand has seen many refugees and migrant workers from Burma cross our borders and once here being subjected to discrimination and living in poor conditions, the worst abuses actually happen in their own country. And it is not only civil war and political repression that prevail in our western neigbour. The Burmese journalist Khin Myat Myat Wai travelled to the Irrawaddy delta region in southern Burma, where she met people whose job is to catch fish and shrimps, which is then dried and fermented to become ngapee, a staple paste that is used in most local dishes. And she found that they were labouring under slave-like conditions on rickety, hardly seaworthy rafts out in the ocean – and that no one until now has exposed these practices. No one is giving assistance to these workers, and the practice of enslavement continues. This is her story.

One of the workers I met is Maung Nay Lin Htet, a 17 year old ethnic Karen who had formerly worked as a mason. He was hired by a broker in the old capital Rangoon and sent to Naukmi village near Pyapon, a town in the Irrawaddy delta with is the centre for the ngapee industry. He was promised a not too onerous, well-paid job. He was told he would get 120,000 Burmese kyats a month with no deductions for room and board, so he never hesitated to go to Naukmi. 120,000 kyats, or a bit less than 3,000 baht, may not sound that much, but for a poor man like Maung Nay Lin Htet, it is a considerable amount of money.

But it is a well-organised racket that Maung Nay Lin Htet got himself into. Zin Maung Maung Latt, another former worker on the rafts, told me during my visit to Pyapon: “In this area during the fishery season, groups of five people are brought from I don’t know where and handed to the raft owners. For each worker, the broker gets 50,000 kyats. I’ve seen some cases where brokers have got these people drunk and forcefully brought them here. And there are even cases of people whose relatives have brought them here and sold them at an employer’s house,” said Zin Maung Maung Latt.
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During the three months Maung Nay Lin Htet worked on a raft, he went from being a strong young man to being infirm in his lower body. Looking at his disabled legs and feeling sorry for him, I grasp his hand and help him sit in a chair while he speaks. He tells me that each raft has three people working on them, a leader and two helpers. The fishing period lasts from September to April, during which they go out on the open sea to catch fish.  According to the ebb and flow of the tides, once every six hours, so four times per day, the net has to be lowered and drawn. Depending on the catch, the work entails sorting shrimp, separating large and small fish, putting fish and shrimp out to dry, and salting the fish.

The first day that Maung Nay Lin Htet was on the ocean, he went hungry: “During the months that I worked, I didn’t get to eat regularly. Sometimes I didn’t eat for two or three days. So, I’d rinse the salted fish and eat it. Since there wasn’t enough fresh water, I had to rinse it with salt water and eat it. Now I’m not even half the human being I used to be. There are three workers from my work group who have become debilitated in their lower body. It was really exhausting and we were only able to sleep three or four hours a day. During the time we caught lots of fish, I wouldn’t be able to sleep for about two days.”

According to Tin Myint, a man I met in Naukmi who worked as a raft head for nine years, it is common for workers on the rafts to run out of fresh drinking water – and drinking salt water can have disastrous consequences. And during times when they are not catching fish, the workers get only about four hours of sleep per day. On days when they are catching lots of fish, they have to work for two days straight without sleep.

“Due to injuries from getting pierced by the barbed fins of fish, a person’s whole hand gets torn up,” says Maung Nay Lin Htet as he turns his palms up to display.

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Within the first two months of having arrived out on the ocean, Maung Nay Lin Htet’s stomach was aching and his legs were in pain, so he asked the raft head to send him back to shore. But he thought Maung Nay Lin Htet would run away and therefore did not send him back to shore: “After I told the raft head that I wanted to go to the hospital, about 17 days passed. I was then moved from the raft to a ship. Eventually, I could only move by dragging myself on my bum and so they moved me once again, this time to a fish collection ship.” Rafts do not venture too far off shore, but because of their size as well as lack of organisation or care by operators, once supplies run dry, returning to shore is the only way to reach food and water.

“Now, I want my legs to get better, like they used to be. I’ve got treatment, but they haven’t got better. My personal guess is that my legs are no good anymore,” he said while hanging his head and looking at his left leg.

According to Dr. Min Nyan Baing Aung, a local medical official, this phenomenon results from a shortage of Vitamin B1, which leads to a loss of vitality, which in turn causes the lower legs to become debilitated.

“I’ll never forget that day,” says 65-year-old Pauk Sa, a resident of Pyapon who worked for seven months back and forth on the open ocean. “I wasn’t full, so I asked for a bit more rice. So, the raft head overloaded a plate or rice and ordered me to eat it. He then filled it again and sarcastically ordered me to keep eating. When I couldn’t finish it, he smacked both my ears at once using his two hands. He then clawed at my neck while the other workers kicked me in the ribs.”

We know from the Amar Township police station death registry that during the first two months of 2017, 30 raft workers became malnourished just like Maung Nay Lin Htet – and then suffered an even worse fate. They died. Four other workers died due to fights on their rafts, which is not uncommon under the harsh conditions they work under. For 2016, this same registry shows that among the raft workers, 25 individuals died due to malnourishment, and nine individuals were killed by their fellow workers. The private raft operators have companies which often are improperly registered, which means that they are hard to be made accountable. Because it is easy to recruit – willingly or not – more laborers, many appear to have little regard for work environment, even life, knowing that if workers die, they are easily replaced.

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“About 8,000 workers are employed during the fishing season and within two months after having gone out onto the ocean, we lose about 2,000 people, which includes people who run away, people who get sick, people who can’t endure the rigours of the work, and people who run away on rest days,” U Moe, chairperson of the raft owners’ association, told me in a surprisingly candid confession.

According to U Moe, an assistant worker on the raft earns 45,000 – 60,000 kyats per month​, a raft head earns around 100,000 kyats, the chief raft head gets from 400,000 to 700,000 kyats, and workers can get advance pay of 300,000 kyats or up to 1,000,000 kyats depending on their position before heading out to the ocean for the first time. Since most workers gets a monthly salary that is only in the thousands, when their advances run out, they still need money for the upcoming year and have to borrow money from their employers. While many are promised 120,000 kyats per month, numerous deductions or expenses are charged to them, reducing the amount.

When conflicts arise between workers and employers, although the ward administration, fishery employers’ association, and raft employers’ association should be involved in resolving it, from the side of the fishery workers there is no association or union that can assist them. Myo Aung, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labour, Population and Immigration, says that according to the law, employers must pay compensation in cases of a fishery worker’s death at a rate determined according to the injury incurred, as certified in a doctor’s medical check.

“The problem is that they take money from their employers and don’t repay it. If in that way they get a monthly salary of 50,000 or 60,000 kyat, then workers who are dissatisfied need to file a complaint,” he said. But that hardly ever happens as legal registration cards have been filed for only a few of the 8,000 workers.

I was told by medical personnel in the area that in March 2017, up to 30 fishery workers died because, like U Pauk Sa, they did not get sufficient food and did not get medical treatment in time. Another six fishery workers died that month due to injuries. In the whole of 2016, 55 fishery workers died from malnourishment and 10 others died from injuries according to the medics.

Dr. Min Nyan Baing Aung from a local hospital told me that most ocean fishery workers who arrive at the hospital are already too far gone to be treated or they have already died. He says that it is evident when conducted autopsies that most of these people have died due to burst arteries in their stomachs, tuberculosis, liver disease, or water buildup in their hearts, livers, kidneys or intestines. They become malnourished, they get stomach ulcers, their bodies become bloated due to eating mostly seafood, which is heavy in salt, and water enters their lungs and livers. These are all causes of fishery workers’ deaths, explained the doctor.

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“In Pyapon, the going rate if an ocean worker dies is just 600,000 kyat, or around 13,000 baht. Now, whenever an unclaimed corpse of a fishery worker is discovered on shore having floated in from the sea, we just put it in a plastic bag and people take it away and bury it in the Amar cemetery,” says Zin Maung Maung Thant, a resident of Amar Village.

Than Oo, a general worker who has been employed at the Amar public hospital for ten years, says that most unhealthy raft fishers who are sent to the hospital arrive only after they have died, the hospital acting more of a dumping ground for corpses than a place to heal. Cathy Cho, of the municipal government, told me that the death registry shows that the raft workers who have died have come from Rangoon, Hlaingthayar, South Dagon, Dala, Pegu, Shwepyithar and other places far from the ocean, mainly from the entire lower Burma region.

And the survivors continue to suffer. Having been sold by a broker, Maung Nay Lin Htet did not know what exactly his salary would be. It was only when his parents came to the Naukmi in order to meet with the employer and to negotiate Maung Nay Lin Htet’s return home that they learned he had been sold for 300,000 kyats. His father has now been able retrieve him from his employer by paying 200,000 kyats. But it is uncertain whether or not a treatment for Maung Nay Lin Htet’s infirm lower body will be successful – and for how much longer will there continue to be such deeply tragic stories coming from the raft fishing industry?