By Amanda Painter
Today on Democracy Now! Amy Goodman interviewed Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza: two investigative reporters working for the Associated Press who, over the course of 18 months, revealed the extent to which Burmese slaves are worked nearly to death on Thai fishing boats. And yes, the catch from those boats makes it into popular U.S. restaurants and supermarkets all the time.
The AP series is up for a Pulitzer Award, which will be announced sometime today.
McDowell and Mendoza — along with their photographer and videographer — traveled to the remote island of Benjina in Indonesia. As Goodman states, “They found workers trapped in cages, whipped with toxic stingray tails for punishment, and forced to work 22 hours a day for almost no compensation.”
Their quest began with painstaking digital research — and warnings from people that they would not get anywhere with the investigation. Slave-caught fish gets mingled on transport ships with legally caught fish; records are falsified regularly; people lie. Then they were told of men abandoned by these fishing companies on islands in Indonesia — men who had been tricked or sometimes even drugged or kidnapped. McDowell and Mendoza knew that they had to go to the island, and had to get photographic proof of men caged in the “company prison.” They did.
Even more amazingly, nine days after the AP team broke the story, Indonesian government officials decided to go to Benjina to investigate for themselves, and asked the AP reporters to go with them. The Indonesian officials interviewed not only the company site manager and others higher-ups, they took aside 20 Burmese fisherman and interviewed them.
Realizing it would be dangerous for these men to be left behind on the island, the officials told the reporters they’d be taking the men with them — obviously not realizing how many men were on the island. As word spread, men began appearing from the hills, the woods — hundreds of men who had not seen their families for years; one man had been enslaved there for 22 years. Eventually, more than 2,000 Burmese fishing slaves were freed.
Read or watch the entire Democracy Now! interview here, or read the full AP expose here for the whole, compelling story. But know this: McDowell and Mendoza were able to track slave-caught fish from Thailand to small U.S. chains such as Schnucks or Piggly Wiggly, and also to major chains such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, Kroger, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, major food distributor Sysco and many, many others.
In other words, if you have eaten fish whose national origin is not explicitly known, it is pretty much guaranteed that you have eaten slave-caught fish at some point. Why is this, when the U.S. has laws against importing goods that have been made or procured through slave labor or human trafficking?
Because of the ‘consumptive demand’ loophole.
As Mendoza explains, “If there’s a consumptive demand for an item, then, even if it’s slave-produced, it can be allowed in. After we published a story about this, the entire Congress agreed to change the loophole. And about a month ago, Obama signed into law a measure that included a provision closing that loophole.”
That will help, but the fight will continue; not only in the fishing industry — where fishing in southeast Asia has been forced far offshore due to overfishing inshore — but in any industry that makes consumer goods sold cheaply overseas. Once again, it comes down to individual consumers to push for change and justice. McDowell explains:
“It almost doesn’t matter, to a degree, what governments are saying, what labor rights groups are saying, what human rights organizations are saying”; in other words, “it is really when the businesses that are buying and the consumers start screaming that things start to change. So I really believe the voice of the American consumer is the biggest impetus to change for these Thai seafood companies.”
In my column last week, I noted that Ceres landing on the Aries Point (early degrees of Aries) indicates that, “what genuinely nourishes the individual Self also feeds the collective, and vice versa.” Today Democracy Now! served up a story that fits the description perfectly — right down to it being feminine persistence (in the form of a four-woman team) bringing an underground, hellish story to light; a story about how your choices about where and what you eat do make a difference for entire groups of people across the globe.