Journalist | Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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By Alex Consiglio and Khy Sovuthy
The Cambodia Daily

When Roeun Hen would try to take a break from his 20-hour shift trawling Indonesian waters for fish, his Thai captain would pummel him, kicking and punching the 29-year-old until he returned to work.

After two years of the abuse, and without receiving the pay he had been promised, Mr. Hen made a dash for freedom when the boat docked at the remote Indonesian island of Benjina.

“I fled from the boat alone,” Mr. Hen said Thursday, noting that 10 other Cambodians had been forced to work on the boat with him. “I could not endure working on the boat anymore.”

Mr. Hen is among at least 58 Cambodians who were rescued from Benjina last Friday—along with hundreds of other slave laborers mostly from Burma—by the Indonesian government following an exposé by The Associated Press.

Speaking Thursday from the island city of Tual, where the Indonesian government is now caring for more than 300 freed fishermen with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Mr. Hen said he had been tricked into working on the boat.

In 2009, Mr. Hen said he paid a broker in Poipet City, which borders Thailand, to smuggle him across the border for a well-paying job. The broker took him to a fishing boat, he said, where the Thai captain paid the broker and told Mr. Hen he would earn about $180 per month fishing Thai waters.

But the boat left Thailand’s Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, where Benjina operated as the hub for forced labor used on boats that fished Indonesia’s waters and transported the catch back to Thailand.

In the two years that Mr. Hen spent on the boat, operated by the Pusaka Benjina Resources company, he said he collected a total of $120.

“When I fled from the boat after two years, the captain looked for me but I escaped and hid from him,” said Mr. Hen, who spent the next three years stranded on the island. He earned enough money to survive by unloading fish from docked boats, always careful not to be spotted by his former captain.

The Indonesian government, which has shut down Pusaka Benjina Resources, is investigating the company’s operations based out of Benjina and attempting to determine if the fleet of boats registered in Indonesia was actually Thai-owned.

Mr. Hen’s plight is frighteningly familiar. A 2014 report by the Environment Justice Foundation concluded that “the use of trafficked and forced labor aboard Thai vessels operating outside of Thai waters is widespread.”

“A common practice by boats operating illegally is to assume the identity of another fishing vessel that is licensed or conceal their identity completely,” the report says.

Last year, an annual U.S. report on human trafficking downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest level, due to its systemic failure to protect foreign workers.

In response to the recent Benjina revelations, both the Thai and Indonesian governments have promised to shut down illegal fishing operations and companies benefiting from forced labor.

Indonesia is continuing to rescue what are believed to be more than 4,000 stranded fishermen across its islands, and Thailand has promised to draft new laws to address labor exploitation.

But Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said he is not convinced that the commitment from Thailand will be followed up with concrete action.

“While Thailand’s leaders have now made verbal commitments to end fishing industry abuses, there still has been very little practical government action to take down the trafficking rackets that have delivered hundreds of unfortunate Cambodians into slavery at sea,” he said.

Sara Piazzano, country director of the USAID-funded Counter-Trafficking in Persons Project in Cambodia, said that thousands of desperate Cambodian migrant workers are locked into bondage even before they end up enslaved on boats.

“Even before they are boarded onto a vessel, it’s difficult [to escape],” she said. “They pay money [to a broker] and are promised jobs, whether in construction or elsewhere, so it’s difficult to go back [home]—they need to make some money,” she said.

Ms. Piazzano noted that Thailand had also promised reforms after the blacklisting by the U.S. last year, but that it’s not clear if anything has changed.

Seab Sokhoeun, another Cambodian fisherman rescued from Benjina, said a broker in Cambodia smuggled him and 10 others into Thailand in 2009.

The ringleader in Thailand then quickly split the men up and sold Mr. Sokhoeun to a Thai fishing captain.

“I worked on the boat for more than two years, but I could not endure it,” he said from Tual. “When I asked to go home, the captain told me to throw a tire in the ocean and use it to swim home.”

Like Mr. Hen, Mr. Sokhoeun was not paid for his work and only received a meager stipend to buy rice when the boat docked at Benjina. He eventually managed to escape and spent three years stranded on the island.

The IOM is currently working with representatives from the Cambodian Embassy in Jakarta to identify Cambodians rescued from Benjina and give them proper identification and travel documents for repatriation.

“Please, the Cambodian government and the Cambodian Embassy, help us to go back home,” Mr. Sokhoeun said. “I swear I will never work abroad again because of this bad experience.”