They came from all over: Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. And by the hundreds, they jumped at the chance to leave — to be rescued from the bondage to which they have been subjected for years.
An investigation by the Associated Press had uncovered the criminal industry hiding virtually in plain sight on one of Indonesia’s remote fishing islands, Benjina.
Men from all over Southeast Asia had been brought to Benjina to work, some of them kidnapped or lured by the false prospect of restaurant jobs. For as many as 10 years, they labored without pay or adequate food and water, and under the heavy hand of violence.
After the AP published its report highlighting the abuses on the island, the Indonesian government dispatched help:
The dramatic rescue came after a round of interviews Indonesian officials held with the fishermen, where they confirmed the abuse reported in the AP story, which included video of eight men locked in a cage and a slave graveyard. The men, mostly from Myanmar, talked of how they were beaten and shocked with Taser-like devices at sea, forced to work almost nonstop without clean water or proper food, paid little or nothing and prevented from going home.
Some 300 men initially came forward, enticed by the prospect of freedom; they were taken off the island by some of the same boats that had brought them there in the first place. That number has since grown to nearly 550, according to the AP.
“Maybe some on these boats wanted to be there but not me and not many others,” fisherman Kyaw Yelin told Al Jazeera. “They told me to just accept my situation but I couldn’t. I want so badly to go home.”
Still, fear kept some men in hiding; they fled to the forest and stayed there, afraid to talk about their experiences, the AP reported. Others said they wanted to remain on the island, hoping to collect years’ worth of withheld wages.
“We’ll follow up with the embassies and the victims to try and get restitution and compensation,” said Steve Hamilton of the International Organization for Migration, according to Voice of America. “I think that’s another way to approach the men who are afraid to leave because they afraid they’re losing years and years of back pay if they walk away, that at least they see someone is on their corner.”
Hamilton’s group estimates that there could be 4,000 enslaved or trafficked workers stranded on neighboring islands.
For some of the men working on Benjina, the desire to be rescued from substandard living and working conditions had to be weighed against the uncertainty that awaited them back home, where they could be returning to economic deprivation and political instability.
“I’m really happy, but I’m confused,” 32-year-old Nay Hla Win told the AP. “I don’t know what my future is in Myanmar.”
Scandalized by the AP’s revelations, the Indonesian government has sprung into action.
“We must solve this. It should never happen again, because it is embarrassing for Indonesia,” fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said as the government announced a that a special team would investigate the situation on the island, according to Agence France-Presse.
But for all the urgency sparked by the AP’s investigation, this scandal is just a small part of a larger problem in Indonesia, watchdog groups say.
Despite efforts by the government to address the modern slave problem, Indonesia ranks among the top 10 on the Global Slavery Index, which estimates slave populations and prevalence by country.
“The wide gap between wealth and poverty, high levels of unemployment and corruption create an environment in which modern slavery flourishes in Indonesia,” the report found.
The hundreds of captives freed on Benjina are just a drop in the bucket for Indonesia, where an estimated 700,000 people live and work in conditions of slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index.
For years, advocates with the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (also known as Kontras) have brought to light blatant cases of abuse and slavery that occur on a smaller, though no less abhorrent scale in Indonesia.
In 2013, Kontras worked with police to uncover a case of 30 people who had been forced to do housework without pay and were kept together in a small, windowless room with only one bathroom.
“One big problem here, is that the government has increasing legitimacy in the international world while the number of human rights cases keeps increasing,” Kontras activist Syamsul Munir said, according to CCTV News. “That means there’s a danger of losing the political will to solve and prevent these cases with real actions instead of just lip services.”
The problem of modern slavery has been particularly difficult to address in the remote island regions where the practice is flourishing.
The Indonesian government has sought to crack down on illegal workers and shell companies that are suspected to be using slave labor. But the problem is an international one.
The company at the center of the AP investigation is Pusaka Benjina Resources, one of the largest fishing companies in Eastern Indonesia. It operates dozens of boats that the AP found to have had Thai captains and are suspected to be Thai-owned.
Workers on those boats are often given fake Thai names and documentation, the AP reported. And they continue to operate, in part due to bribery at top levels of the Indonesian government:
Illegal Thai boats are falsely registered to fish in Indonesia through graft, sometimes with the help of government authorities. Praporn Ekouru, a Thai former member of Parliament, admitted to the AP that he had bribed Indonesian officials to go into their waters, and complained that the Indonesian government’s crackdown is hurting business.
“In the past, we sent Thai boats to fish in Indonesian waters by changing their flags,” said Praporn, who is also chairman of the Songkhla Fisheries Association in southern Thailand. “We had to pay bribes of millions of baht per year, or about 200,000 baht ($6,100) per month. … The officials are not receiving money anymore because this order came from the government.”
Some of that ill-gotten haul ends up back on Thailand’s shores, helping the country maintain its position as the world’s third-largest seafood exporter.
And its final destination might well be your dinner table.