ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Captive Labor and the Reporters Who Exposed an International Scandal

Last year, four Associated Press reporters explored a dark corner of the international seafood industry, finding that some of the largest distributors and suppliers in Southeast Asia used slave labor to catch, clean and transport goods sold in American markets.

To do it, the reporters visited a remote a jungle island inhabited primarily by enslaved fishermen and their captors. Men had been kept in cages there; many perished and were buried in unmarked graves. When fishing company officials realized what the reporters were up to, they deployed “hired thugs” and tried to chase them off. Undeterred, the reporters published their exposés, prompting an investigation by the Indonesian government. Ultimately, 2,000 people gained their freedom. On this week’s podcast, reporters Martha Mendoza, Robin McDowell and Margie Mason tell us about their work.

Formerly enslaved fisherman Myint Naing, left, and his mother cry as they are reunited after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of formerly enslaved fishermen who returned to Myanmar following the Associated Press’ investigation. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Among the highlights:

The fact that there were slaves working in the seafood industry in Southeast Asia had been pretty well known among reporters, human rights advocates, and government officials. How did you decide to further investigate something that was, essentially, an open secret?

Mason: That's right. Basically, all of us knew about this for a long time, and I think what we wanted to try to do was figure out a way to make people care. We kept thinking, "Where is the outrage with this?" In trying to determine how to do that, we came up with two things. One, we thought we needed to find captive slaves, and two, we thought we needed to find a way to connect their catch back to the American dinner table, back to the American grocery stores and restaurants. Of course, other people had tried this before and failed. We were told repeatedly that what we were after was impossible, that it was the Holy Grail. I think, in many ways, that just fueled our determination, and we said, "We are going to do this," and we ended up doing it.

So you were chased off a slave island by a fishing company’s hired muscle. How’d that make you feel?

McDowell: Terrified. Esther [Htusan] said she felt her soul kind of float out of her body at that point. Once we got over that fear, initial fear, the next thing that was really haunting us was that we could easily be arrested at that moment. The worst thing that could happen was that they seized our film. We tried to split it between memory sticks and computers. We had three copies of everything and hid certain things. If they had gotten their hands on that footage, and had evidence of who was speaking to us, what they were saying, it would have been really dangerous for those men. Once we were safely on land, that was the thing that was really terrifying us.

What was it like to watch these men, who had been held captive for so long, win their freedom?

McDowell: It was really remarkable. From the moment they were told, "Go get your belongings. You're getting off the island," they started running back to their trawlers. It started raining. Pretty soon it was pouring down rain. They were just running over, jumping over the rails, jumping through the windows of their boats, grabbing whatever belongings they could find and stuffing them in plastic bags, and running back, and hugging one another. It was really ... it was a sight you can't even imagine seeing when you're reporting something, and having such an immediate and direct consequence to the reporting.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read the slavery in seafood series.

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