Enslaved fishery workers near Pyapon City

Khin Myat Myat Wai reports on offshore raft fishing in Myanmar, as translated by Stephen Campbell.

[Translator’s note: The following is a translation of Khin Myat Myat Wai’s article, “Enslaved fishery workers near Pyapon City” (“ဖျာပုံမြီု့ အနီးက ကျွန်ပြုခံ ရေလုပ်သားများ”), which The Voice newspaper published in May 2017. In May 2018, in recognition of this important piece of investigative journalism, the Myanmar Journalists’ Association awarded Khin Myat Myat Wai their annual prize for Best Feature Article. The article (in translation) and the accompanying photos are used with permission from the author. The industry discussed in the article is colloquially known as the “England tiger raft” industry, though the origin of this label remains unclear.]

An “England tiger raft” at sea in the Gulf of Martaban (Image credit: Khin Myat Myat Wai)

[Editor’s note: The Voice journalist, Khin Myat Myat Wai, conducted investigative field research to write the following article on the labour of the many individuals who have been enslaved and have invested their lives, blood and sweat to procure with their tears the fish paste, dried fish, and fish sauce that are considered staple dishes in Myanmar, without which dinner tables would be incomplete.]

About three months ago, there was a man on a tiger raft who was able to take strides with a pair of strong legs, but who now needs help to walk. Maung Nay Lin Htet is a 17-year-old ethnic Karen man—a resident of Danuphyu City, but a native of Kyonepyaw, who formerly earned a living as a mason. Although he travelled to Yangon to work as a mason, he was taken by a broker and sold to work on a tiger raft. During the three months that he had to work on the tiger raft, he went from being a strong young man to being disabled—infirm in his lower body. As he grasped a helping hand to walk and slowly sit in a chair, he expressed remorse for his own life.

Over 50 miles from Yangon, where the river meets the sea near Pyapon City, there are many people who have been sold by brokers and enslaved in the tiger raft industry, and many have died from malnourishment. However, no one has yet exposed these practices, and no one is giving assistance to these workers. The practice of enslavement continues.

In Ayeyarwady Region, the season of the England tiger raft industry begins in August, when the workers are recruited, and continues for seven months from September to April, during which the workers carry out the business of fishing in the open sea. On one tiger raft, there are just three people: two assistants and one raft head. According the ebb and flow of the tide, once every six hours, and so four times per day, the nets must be lowered and drawn. Depending on the amount of fish caught, the work entails sorting shrimp, separating large and small fish, putting fish out to dry, putting shrimp out to dry, and salting fish.

Eight months ago, Maung Nay Lin Htet left his birthplace and, in contact with an uncle, went to Yangon City to work as a mason. Five days after arriving in Yangon, and while sitting in a teashop after returning from masonry work, Maung Nay Lin Htet was approach by a woman of about 50 years of age sitting at a nearby table, who started talking to him about needing someone to work as a waiter at a teashop. Subsequently, this broker woman took Maung Nay Lin Htet to a house in 67th Quarter of Dagon Township.

In that house, there was an 80-year-old grandmother and a 25-year-old woman, said Maung Nay Lin Htet. “That day, they bought me food, cigarettes, and betel nut. They did not even allow me to sit outside. They arranged everything so that there was nothing else that I needed. I felt indebted. I was really grateful that they had found me work and fed me,” he says.

At daybreak, Maung Nay Lin Htet and the woman broker rented a car and then headed to the Dala pier at 8:00 in the morning. When they arrived at the Dala side of the Yangon River, they took a ride for about four hours in a ten-person truck. At noon, they arrived in a small town. Seeing a sign at the town entrance saying, “Welcome to Pyapon,” Maung Nay Lin Htet knew they had arrived in Pyapon City.

Upon arrival, they went to the Pyapon market, where the woman broker bought two sets of clothing and a blanket and put them in a bag. From Pyapon City, they rented a motorcycle taxi for 20,000 kyat and, continuing their journey, arrived at Naukmi Village at 4:00 in the afternoon. Upon arriving in Naukmi Village, the woman broker went up to each house belonging to an England tiger raft employer, asking if they needed a worker. Eventually, she handed Maung Nay Lin Htet over at the house of the owner of an England tiger raft business.

“For 120,000 kyat a month with no deductions for room and board, I said I’d work. They said I did not even need to bring clothes or anything as everything is covered because the work is in urgent need of people. So, I went along, and now my lower body is debilitated and I’m unable to send back any remittances. My parents probably even think I’m dead,” said Maung Nay Lin Htet, while looking away into the distance.

Fishery workers sort prawns on a tiger raft in the Gulf of Martaban (Image credit: Khin Myat Myat Wai)

Individuals who have been made to work to the point that their lower bodies become debilitated are aged 15 to 50 and come from all over Myanmar.

Ko Zin Maung Maung Latt from Amar Village spoke about the human trafficking that occurs every fishery season in Ayeyarwady Region’s Pyapon City. “In this area during the fishery season, sometimes groups of five people are brought from unknown places and handed over at the houses of the tiger raft owners. For each worker, the broker gets 50,000-kyat commission. I’ve seen some cases where brokers have gotten these people drunk and forcefully brought them here. And there are cases of people whose relatives have brought them here and sold them at an employer’s house,” said Ko Zin Maung Maung Latt.

Naukmi Village, which is the primary location for the production of shrimp paste in Ayeyarwady Region, is about 110 miles from Yangon. The long-distance bus travels from Pyapon City to Naukmi Village only once a day, at 6:00 in the morning. With a motorcycle taxi, the fare is 25,000 kyat. The road trip is blurred by dust. In some places, the ride cut across fields due to the lack of clear indications of a road.

The village—thick with the rank smell of fish from fish processing factories, fish storage depots and fish drying racks—is the site with the largest production of fish paste, dried fish, and shrimp paste, necessary ingredients for family dinner tables all over Myanmar.

In that village, the interconnecting roads are just eight feet wide—only enough for a single car to pass—and one can see sealed-up homes with large compounds, workers’ quarters, women’s dormitories, and men’s dormitories. In front of every single home in the village are spirit shrines for U Shin Gyi, the patron of the sea. In front of the house lots are 50-year-old security guards with russet-coloured retrievers.

In the whole of Naukmi Village, there are 53 employers, and every single educated upper-class and middle-class person owns between 10 and 50 tiger rafts. This year, it is known from the Naukmi Fishery Employers’ Association that these employers require approximately 8,000 fishery workers.

U Aye Soe, owner of the Jade Tiger Raft Enterprise and also the village administrator of Naukmi Village, explained, “Here, there are no companies, and company registration is unnecessary—we have fishing licenses, of course. Since workers are scarce here, we have to use brokers to find workers. Of course, some of these workers are alcoholics. They aren’t allowed to drink alcohol while out at sea. But they order rubbing alcohol to treat wounds. They mix it with water and drink it—it’s like that. When a worker falls into the water and dies, or gets sick and dies, we owners pay 600,000 kyat in compensation.”

However, it has been learned through investigation that tiger raft fishery workers do not get sufficient food. Sometimes, the workers die because they run out of fresh water or because they become malnourished. There are also those whose health has deteriorated.

The first day that Maung Nay Lin Htet was on the ocean, he starved. “During the months that I worked, I didn’t get to eat regularly. Sometimes I didn’t eat for two or three days. So, I’d rinse the salted fish and eat it. Since there wasn’t enough fresh water, I had to rinse it with salt water and eat it. Now I’m even less than half the size I used to be. There are three workers from my work group who have become debilitated in their lower body. It was really exhausting and we were only able to sleep three or four hours a day. During that time, if we caught lots of fish, I wouldn’t be able to sleep for about two days,” says Maung Nay Lin Htet.

According to U Tin Myint from Naukmi Village, who worked as a raft head for nine years, it is common for tiger raft fishery workers to run out of fresh drinking water. We know from the Amar Township police station death registry that during the first two months of 2017, there were 30 raft workers who became malnourished, just like Maung Nay Lin Htet, and then died, and there were four workers who died due to fights on their rafts. For 2016, this same registry shows that among the ocean tiger raft workers, 25 individuals died due to malnourishment, and nine individuals were killed by their fellow workers.

It is known from investigation that the people who died like that out on the ocean did not die due to natural dangers, but rather due to lack of sufficient food or medical treatment in time. “Although about 8,000 workers are employed during the fishing season, within two months after having gone out onto the ocean, we lose about 2,000 people, including people who run away, people who get sick, people who can’t endure the rigours of the work, and people who return home,” says U Moe, Naukmi Tiger Raft Employers’ Association Chairperson.

According to U Moe, an assistant worker on the raft earns 45,000 – 60,000 kyat per month, a raft head (known locally as a “goutsi”) earns around 100,000 kyat, and the chief raft head gets from 400,000 to 700,000 kyat, and workers can get advance pay of 300,000 kyat up to (according to their position) around 1,000,000 kyat, before heading out to the ocean for the first time.

Since one worker gets a monthly salary that is only in the tens of thousands, their wage advances run out, and some people who are still in need of money take advances for the upcoming year from their employers, thereby accruing work debt.

U Moe says that workers’ salaries are determined based on a rate of 200 kyat per viss of dried shrimp and 500 kyat per viss of dried fish. He added that it is not appropriate that the eight-hour workday set by Ministry of Labour, which is based on the law for factories and workshops, is applied to work that follows the ebb and flow of the tide, and is therefore inconvenient.

When conflicts arise between workers and employers, although the ward administration, fishery employers’ association, and tiger raft employers’ association are all involved in arbitration, from the side of the fishery workers, there is no workers’ association or union to be seen.

Pyapon England Tiger Raft employer Employers’ Association chairperson U Than Chaung says that from the perspective of employers, since there are cases of workers who take their advance payment and then flee, there is a need for employment agencies. He said, “In order to entice them to work, we give them advance payments, which aren’t covered by the law. Also, some workers arrive out on the ocean, can’t do the work, and then flee. When these workers take their advance payments, even if the contract were to include a death sentence, they would still sign it. So, given the local customs, this work doesn’t correspond with the expectations of currently promulgated law.”

A tiger raft at sea in the Gulf of Martaban  (Image credit: Khin Myat Myat Wai)

U Myo Aung, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labour, Population and Immigration, says that according to the compensation law of the Ministry of Social Security, employers must pay compensation in cases of a fishery worker’s death at a rate determined according to the injury incurred, as certified in a doctor’s medical check. “If I were to speak openly, out on the ocean workers have to work many hours. The problem is obviously that they take money from their employers and don’t repay it. As the [former] minimum wage is set at 3,600 kyats per day for businesses with more than 15 employers, if in that way they get a monthly salary of 50,000 or 60,000 kyat, then workers who are dissatisfied need to file a complaint,” he says.

In 2017, in the 53 villages within the whole of Pyapon Township, there were 144 tiger raft employers and over 7,000 registered fishery workers, says Daw Wa Wa Than of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development. “As for the fishery workers’ problems, the employers’ association resolves the basic ones. But there are at least five cases per month that are not at all resolved satisfactorily and therefore come to us. During the fishing season, there’s a labour shortage problem. Employers are required to arrange registered labour cards at a cost of 2,000 kyat for each worker who goes out on their rafts. In cases of death, for those workers who go out on the rafts without this registration being completed, it isn’t easy to get compensation, since it’s obviously informal,” she says.

This year in Naukmi Village there are around 8,000 fishery workers, but no legal registration cards have been filed, say the fishery workers. It is evident that registered labour cards are not filed for the majority of fishery workers who, like Maung Nay Lin Htet, come from various places and are sold by brokers.

There is also no fixed sleeping time for tiger raft workers. Although during times when they are not catching fish, they can get about four hours of good sleep per day, on days when they are catching many fish, they have to work for two days straight without sleep.

“Due to injuries from getting pierced by the barbed fins of fish, a person’s whole hand gets torn up,” says Maung Nay Lin Htet as he turns his palms up to show me.

Within the first two months of arrival on the ocean, his stomach was aching and his legs were in pain, so he asked the raft head to send him back to shore. However, the raft head thought he would run away and therefore did not let him return to shore, said Maung Nay Lin Htet. “After I told the raft head that I wanted to go to the hospital, about 17 days passed. I was then moved from the raft to a ship. Eventually, I could only move by dragging myself on my bum and so they moved me back to shore with the fish collection ship,” said Maung Nay Lin Htet. “Now, I want my legs to get better, like they used to be. I’ve gotten treatment, but they haven’t gotten better. My personal guess is that my legs are no good anymore,” he said while hanging his head and looking at his left leg.

According to Dr. Min Nyan Baing Aung of the Daw Nyein administrative unit, this phenomenon [called beriberi] results from a shortage of Vitamin B1, which leads to a loss of vitality, which in turn causes the lower legs to become debilitated.

“I’ll never forget that day,” said 65-year-old U Pauk Sa, a resident of Pyapon City who worked for seven months on the open ocean. “I wasn’t full, so I asked for a bit more rice. So, the raft head overloaded a plate of rice and ordered me to eat it. He then filled it again and sarcastically ordered me to keep eating. When I couldn’t finish it, he smacked both of my ears at once using his two hands. He then clawed at my neck while the other workers kicked me in the ribs.”

We know from the Daw Nyein administrative unit hospital that in March 2017, up to 30 ocean fishery workers died because, like U Pauk Sa, they did not get sufficient food and did not get medical treatment in time. Only six fishery workers died that month due to injuries. In the whole of 2016, 55 fishery workers died from malnourishment and 10 others died from injuries according to the Daw Nyein administrative unit hospital.

Dr. Min Nyan Baing Aung from the Daw Nyein administrative unit hospital says that most ocean fishery workers who arrive at the hospital are already too far gone to be treated or they have already died. Dr. Min Nyan Baing Aung says that it is evident when conducting autopsies that most of these people have died due to burst arteries in their stomachs, tuberculosis, liver disease, or water build-up in their hearts, livers, kidneys or intestines.

Most ocean fishery workers drink alcohol, but they are unable to drink while out on the ocean. In addition, they become malnourished, they get stomach ulcers, their bodies become bloated due to eating mostly seafood, which is heavy in salt, and water enters their lungs and livers. These are all causes of fishery workers’ deaths, explains a doctor from the Daw Nyein administrative unit hospital.

“In Pyapon, the going rate if an ocean worker dies is just 600,000 kyat. The life of such person is worth just as much as little chickens or birds. Now, whenever an unclaimed corpse of a fishery worker is discovered on shore having floated in from the sea, we just put it in a plastic bag and four people take it away and bury it in the Amar cemetery,” said Ko Zin Maung Maung Thant, a resident of Amar Village.

U Than Oo, a general worker who has been employed at the Amar public hospital for ten years, said that most sick raft fishery workers who are sent to the hospital arrive only after they have died. Daw Cathy Cho, of the municipal government, said that in the death registry, the dead raft workers come from Yangon, Haingtharyar, South Dagon, Dala, Bago Region, Shwepyithar and places in Upper Myanmar.

The majority of tiger raft workers are individuals who have been sold into this industry by brokers and are even unaware of the very low salary and other allowances that they will receive. Having been sold by a human broker, Maung Nay Lin Htet likewise did not know what his salary was.

It can be seen that tiger raft fishery workers’ employment contracts and payment agreements include only the raft workers’ names and signatures. It was only when Maung Nay Lin Htet’s parents came to the Naukmi village administration office in order to meet with the employer and to negotiate Maung Nay Lin Htet’s return home that they learned their son had been sold by a broker named Ma Mya Yi for 300,000 kyats.

In this way, the edible commodities produced by tiger raft enterprises, which profit in many ways from the sweat of workers, are sold for high prices at urban markets. U Htun Sein, chair of the Yangon City Fish Paste, Dried Fish, and Fish Sauce Producers’ Association, says that 65 percent of the shrimp paste consumed across Myanmar comes from Naukmi Village in Ayeyarwady Region.

Naukmi Village is the primary village for the production of shrimp paste. This shrimp paste is produced annually during the fishing season by enterprises that enslave and exploit fishery workers who have come from various places across Myanmar.

Today, Maung Nay Lin Htet’s father will be able to retrieve Maung Nay Lin Htet from his tiger raft employer by paying 200,000 kyat. Aside from the primary concern of retrieving Maung Nay Lin Htet from having been sold by a broker, it is uncertain whether or not the treatment for Maung Nay Lin Htet’s infirm lower body will be successful.

Nonetheless, how much longer will there continue to be such deeply tragic stories coming from the tiger raft fishing industry?

Author: Khin Myat Myat Wai is a Yangon-based investigative journalist working with the Burmese-language newspaper, The Voice.

Translator: Stephen Campbell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research covers labour issues in Myanmar and Thailand.

All images credit of Khin Myat Myat Wai.