PHANG NGA, Thailand: High in the sky, the sun is bright and blazing.
Ake is drenched in sweat. His burnt torso is covered in old clothes – wet, dirty and torn. The fisherman is hard at work with his brother-in-law. His bare feet burn as they move back and forth on the wooden deck.
His hands feel stiff as he grabs and hauls the trap overboard. With a hefty sandbag tied to the bottom, it weighs more than 30kg. Inside, the fresh bait dangles – white, fist-sized sacs of squid eggs.
“No squid,” Ake says, hurling the empty trap back into the water and setting off for the next one.
This has been Ake’s life since he was 12. Now 40, he seems older than his age. Decades of back-breaking work have left his skin burnt, rough and wrinkled, his hands hardened with calluses, cracks and scars.
The sea is rough, but full of treasure. Ake, whose full name is Rapin Longdeaw, cannot peer through the depths but he knows exactly where to find it. Thirty metres below the choppy surface, his traps hang above the seabed – 60 cylindrical wooden frames covered in a nylon mesh.
Over the past three decades, the fisherman has done the same thing hundreds of thousands of times, hauling and hurling heavy traps with bare hands. Often in the morning, Ake closes his eyes with pain when he tries to flex the fingers.
“I can’t clench my firsts without soaking them in water first.”
Since he was a teenager, Ake has not stopped working. His day starts in the dark, at 2.30am, when he gets up to prepare his fishing gear. By 5.30am, the fisherman leaves for the open water and stays at sea for 4 to 5 hours, toiling in the burning sun or torrential rain. The only time he gets to rest is when he travels between his traps, a few minutes at a time.
“Fishing is tough and exhausting,” Ake says. His long-tail boat bobs up and down the raging Andaman Sea.
“We have to keep moving the traps. And that’s the hardest part because they’re really heavy.”
On the horizon, a faint shadow appears. Ake steers his boat towards the object – a white flag fluttering on a bamboo pole. With a long hook, his brother-in-law pulls it overboard and ties its rope to a turning reel. The nylon thread stretches down to the seafloor and connects the bamboo stick with a buoy, the trap and a big sandbag that keeps it in place.
Underwater, air bubbles start to form, followed by a dark shape shooting upwards. Within seconds, a wooden frame breaks the surface with a loud splash.
“Got it!” Ake shouts, his face lit up with a big smile. After four disappointing stops, luck is on his side.
Two big squid squirm inside his trap. Their colour cells dance as the skin muscles expand and contract. Ake puts them in an empty bucket, swings the trap back into the sea and sets off once again.
A big storm is forecast but the fisherman takes the risk of venturing out for the sake of his family. Whatever he catches today will be sold to a middleman and the money will buy food for his young wife, their seven-month-old son and his elderly parents.
“The storm is coming,” Ake says. “We’ll keep working until it gets too bad.”
Like many residents of the Khuk Khak village, Ake grew up in a family of fishers. He learned the art of fishing at a young age and followed in his father’s footsteps to become a fisherman.
The job was tough for the young boy, but a lack of career options kept him going. After his father retired, he became the sole breadwinner of his family. And if he stops, they will starve.
At the end of each day, the hard work usually pays off. With a bit of luck, Ake earns about US$60 a day from 10kg of squid, compared to the daily minimum wage of about US$9 in Thailand.
However, seafood stocks are in decline. Growing demand has led to decades of overfishing. Thai Fisheries Department records show that seafood exports are falling – from 2 million tonnes in 2010 to 1.6 million tonnes last year. Although the catches did not exceed the legal limit, the government has adopted measures to reduce the Thai fishing fleet in order to ensure sustainable marine fisheries.
For small-scale fishers like Ake, work at sea has become even more difficult with the growing presence of big commercial fishing vessels. Currently, more than 10,000 of them ply the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, using advanced equipment that can haul in big catches.
“Many big trawlers work all year round. They drag large nets along the seabed. Besides catching nearly all the fish, they also destroy our traps,” he says.
“We’ve asked them to move further away but nothing has changed.”
Known as “lob meuk” in Thai, squid traps only last a few weeks in the sea before being replaced. Even though they survive the trawlers, they often become dirty with algae.
Ake often makes his own traps at home. He can build up to 50 in a week for US$90. But if he can’t find wood, he has to pay US$295 for already-made ones, making it even harder to make ends meet.
TRAFFICKED AND EXPLOITED
In coastal Phang Nga, fishing is one of the most popular career choices. Apart from the small-scale fishers like Ake, the province is also home to a large number of migrant workers drawn by job opportunities. Many of them take up the jobs that Thais don’t want, such as working on commercial fishing vessels.
Unlike Ake, migrant fishers are often deprived of freedom and subjected to harsher working conditions, lower wages and longer stays at sea.
A shortage of Thai workers and soaring costs have led many operators to source cheap labour from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. According to the Labour Ministry, about 343,000 migrants are working legally in the fishing and seafood processing sectors. Many others in the business are believed to have been illegally trafficked and exploited by employers.
“Attempts to cut labour costs have led to employment of migrant workers, in some cases using deceptive and coercive labour practices,” the International Labour Organization (ILO) said in a recent report.
In 2013 alone, 325 victims of human trafficking were rescued by the Foundation for Education and Development in Phang Nga. More than half of them were Myanmar migrants.
“We work with both victims and eyewitnesses. Some of them were stuck on a fishing boat for 3 to 4 years. Others saw migrant workers killed and thrown into the sea by their employer,” said the foundation’s executive director, Htoo Chit.
For more than a decade, his organisation has been promoting and protecting migrant workers’ rights in Thailand, particularly in the fisheries-dominated south. It has also rescued many hundreds of migrants. One of them is Soe Min Thein.
At the age of 12, he was trafficked from Dawei in Myanmar on to a Thai fishing vessel, where he worked for two years without getting paid.
“There was no time to sleep. We had to work all day, even when we were sick. The crew had to use drugs to stay awake,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
Soe Min Thein was one of the 14 Myanmar migrants on board, all males aged between 12 and 30. Those in possession of legal documents could earn US$500 a month and pay occasional visits to the shore, while the boy and six others were forced to work for free. Their tasks included casting and retrieving nets, sorting fish and repairing broken tools.
“We got to eat twice a day but had to work nonstop, sometimes starting at midnight. Fishing took about 16 hours a day. But we also sorted fish and fixed the nets, which sometimes took days to finish.”
For two years, the ship stayed at sea and Soe Min Thein was trapped. It was not until the vessel made a short stop at Koh Samui that the boy managed to escape and seek help.
“MORE WORK AHEAD”
Illegal fishing and labour exploitation are rife in Thailand. In 2015, the country was issued a yellow card by the European Commission – a warning that if the situation doesn’t improve, Thailand could risk facing an EU ban on its seafood exports, worth US$6 billion to US$7 billion each year.
As a result, the Thai government has employed various measures to win back trust from the international community, updating systems to better control its ports and monitor fishing vessels.
“All these mark departures from the past, and as a result, some on-board practices are changing for the better,” said ILO's Jason Judd.
“And there is more work ahead.”
Mr Judd said Thailand still needs to close the legal gaps on forced labour and fisheries, and implement systematic law enforcement to protect its workers. Suppliers and buyers should also invest in better conditions, and more organisation is needed among working migrants, he added.
Meanwhile, civil society groups are working hard to lend a hand. The Foundation for Education and Development’s Pre-departure Project provides Myanmar workers with information on working in Thailand before they cross the border in Ranong and Tak. Participants also receive training about labour rights and threats of trafficking and exploitation.
“We also have an FM radio programme for fishermen on the boat. It’s easy to listen with their smartphones or radio,” Htoo Chit explained, adding a telephone hotline is also available for migrants to report any problem they face.
Back in the city of Phang Nga, Soe Min Thein is preparing his return to Myanmar. After his rescue, he found a job in a saw mill. The sea still terrifies him.
“What I want the most is a passport so that I can come back to work in Thailand again.”
Out at sea, the storm has passed and Ake’s work is done. His catch should get him US$60 but the fisherman has also lost 10 traps worth about the same amount to trawlers.
“I barely got anything today.”
Standing at the rear of his boat, the seasoned fisher is surrounded by the blue Andaman Sea. He feels exhausted but happy to breathe the familiar salty air and listen to the roaring waves. His sunburnt skin feels cool in the monsoon wind.
“I love fishing. I love the sea. And I’ll never leave them for anything.”
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Camera operator: Ekkapoom Dachpichai