Some of the seafood that winds up in American grocery stores, in restaurants, even in cat food may have been caught by Burmese slaves. That's the conclusion of a yearlong investigation by The Associated Press.
The AP discovered and interviewed dozens of men being held against their will on Benjina, a remote Indonesian island, which serves as the base for a trawler fleet that fishes in the area.
AP correspondent Martha Mendoza was one of the lead reporters for the investigation. The men AP found unloading seafood in Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma. When they realized one of the AP reporters spoke Burmese, "they began calling out, asking for help, and explaining that they were trapped and that they were being beaten and that they were enslaved," Mendoza tells NPR's Renee Montagne.
When the reporter went to the island, she found men held in a cage so that they wouldn't run away. "They were trapped. They had no way to go home; they had not heard from their family in five, 10 years. They were in a desperate situation," Mendoza says.
How did the men wind up in this modern-day form of slavery? In some cases, they were lured by promises of a job by brokers in Burma, Mendoza says. The men had pledged to pay the brokers a fee for finding them the job, but when they arrived, they found out the work was in fishing, which they hadn't signed up for, she says. "And they were obliged to not only pay back the broker fee but now they're being told they must pay for food and shelter as they work 22-hour days. The debt becomes bottomless."
Others were kidnapped and forced to work. Still others signed up for the fishing work but decided it was not for them "because they weren't getting paid and it was a terrible situation," she says.
After the AP reporters made this discovery, they began tracking where the seafood went. They watched the seafood get loaded into a cargo ship called the Silver Sea Lion, then used GPS to track it to a port in Thailand.
"We followed as many as we could to the processing plants," Mendoza says. Literally. The seafood was offloaded into some 150 trucks. The reporters — in cars — followed as many of those trucks as they could, taking notes, shooting video and jotting down the names of the plants where the seafood was delivered.
Then AP dug into customs records "to see which of those companies was shipping seafood into the United States, on what date, under what label," Mendoza says.
Those labels included Iams, Meow Mix, Fancy Feast, and other types of cat food shipped to the U.S. "And the distributors in the United States who are receiving some of the seafood from these factories also sell to Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertson's, Safeway and others," Mendoza says.
The response from cat-food makers, grocers, fish sellers and others in the U.S. has "really been remarkable," she says, from "the National Fisheries Institute on down."
They've "all said that they appreciate the information that we brought to them and that they want to do something about this," Mendoza says. "Nobody denied what we found. Everybody wanted more information."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Some of the seafood that winds up in American grocery stores and restaurants and in cat food may have been caught by slaves. That's the conclusion of a year-long investigation by the Associated Press. Martha Mendoza was one of the lead reporters on a pretty shocking story. A team of her colleagues found dozens of men being held against their will on the remote Indonesian island of Benjina where a large fishing fleet is based.
MARTHA MENDOZA: Indonesia has about 18,000 islands, and they were in a very remote area. And they came upon an island where people were unloading seafood. And one of these reporters is Burmese-speaking and on this island people were speaking Burmese. And when they realized she could speak Burmese began calling out to her asking for help and explaining that they were trapped and that they were being beaten and that they were enslaved. She went onto the island, and there were men in a cage. These men had been locked up because when they came into shore the concern was that they would run away.
MONTAGNE: And from their descriptions they were slaves.
MENDOZA: By the definition of modern-day slavery, absolutely. They were trapped. They had no way to go home. They had not heard from their families in five-10 years. They were in desperate situation.
MONTAGNE: How did they wind up on this island?
MENDOZA: Different men have different paths to getting into this situation. Some were brokered - in other words, a broker would come to Burma, and they would pay the broker money and then be promised a job. And then when they arrive for the job it becomes a fishing job, which they had not signed up for. And they are obliged to not only pay back the broker fee, but now they are being told they must pay for food and shelter as they work 22-hour days. The debt becomes bottomless. Other men have been simply kidnapped and forced to work. And some signed up for jobs and then decided this was not for them because they weren't getting paid, and it was a terrible situation.
MONTAGNE: You all then, having discovered these men, went on to track the seafood that were caught by these men - the supply chain - to figure out where it went. How did you start?
MENDOZA: The first step was watching them offload the seafood that the slaves had caught into a great big refrigerated cargo ship called the Silver Sea Lion. And then we used satellite tracking to follow the Silver Sea Lion on its two-week trip into a port in Thailand about an hour south of Bangkok. And then for four nights they offloaded the Silver Sea Lion's seafood into about 150 trucks, and we followed as many of those as we could to the processing plants.
MONTAGNE: And literally followed in a car.
MENDOZA: Correct. They were in cars following these trucks, taking notes, taking photos, taking video. At each processing plant, they'd jot down the name and get a photo of the name. And those then I could use to start digging into customs records and see which of those companies is shipping seafood to the United States, on what date, under what label.
MONTAGNE: And are these labels that we would know?
MENDOZA: So we saw customs records from some of these factories with Iams brand, Meow Mix brand, Fancy Feast and other cat foods - cans of cat food describing the exact type of food being shipped over to the United States. And the distributors in the United States, who were receiving some of the seafood from these factories, also sell to Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway and others.
MONTAGNE: What has been your response from the cat food makers, the grocery stores, the fish sellers in the United States?
MENDOZA: The companies have really been remarkable. The National Fisheries Institute on down have all said that they appreciate the information that we brought to them and that they want to do something about this. Nobody denied what we found. Everybody wanted more information.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
MENDOZA: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press. As for the men featured in that AP story, Mendoza says they have been freed. They are waiting for their travel papers so they can return home. But now she says five new men are in those cages and hundreds more remain trapped on the island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.