Slavery in Thai fish sheds is not new

So why do we keep treating it as a revelation?

Today, I found this story on Guardian Global Development: an Associated Press investigation intohuman trafficking and labour abuses of the most acute kind in Thailand’s fishing industry.

It’s an excellent piece of journalism. It promotes the voices of the Burmese slaves at the heart of the story. It shows both bold groundwork and solid data chasing.

But I have a problem with it.

The story is awfully similar to this report in the Guardian. And this one, on the BBC. And this investigation by NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Andy Hall, a researcher and migration expert, is in the docks on defamation charges – a criminal offence in Thailand – for authoring a report for Finnish NGO Finnwatch that found serious labour rights abuses in the tuna and fruit processing industry.

Hall’s blog and Twitter, incidentally, are well worth reading if you care even slightly about the issue.

The case studies are different, the angles varied, but fundamentally, they raise the same issue: Thailand has a major problem with human trafficking. Most of the victims are from poorer neighbouring countries in South east Asia, especially Myanmar.

According to the EJF report:

Multiple reports over the past five years have documented abuses of trafficked boat workers in Thailand, including bonded labour, excessive working hours, little or no pay, threats of violence, physical abuse and murder. 12/13 A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that 59 per cent of interviewed migrants trafficked aboard Thai fishing boats reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.14

These reports go back at least as far as 2009. So why are big media constantly running these stories as if they were scoops? These reports are billed as “revealing” the issue, but this is something we have known about for a long time.

It’s hard to build popular pressure for change if every story about Thailand’s slavery problem is billed as a revelation: something we didn’t know, something horrifying that we have just found out, something that shocks us.

In the meantime, hoards of tourists flock to Thailand: over 900,000 Brits every year, according to the Foreign Office. Trafficking is not limited to the food industry: as this report from the Pulitzer Center notes, many of the women doing dangerous work in Thailand’s sex industry have been trafficked or are in bonded labour, largely in service of western tourists.

According to the Pulitzer Center:

The sex industry has rapidly accelerated the spread of HIV after the virus first appeared in Thailand in the 1980s, but the Thai government is reticent to address the problem lest it scare away coveted tourist dollars.

Many people who visit Thailand are energetic, open-minded and politically aware. So, where is the boycott? Where is the protest movement? When I traveled to South Africa, it was as though liberals felt compelled to brandish their credentials by mentioning the inequality problem.

Unlike the spectre of South African apartheid, bullet holes in Balkan walls, or begging children on Indian streets, slavery is largely invisible to the country’s visitors. Locked away in sweltering sheds in industrial zones away from the pretty bits, Thailand’s trafficking victims are out of sight, out of mind.

Reporting on this issue is vital to keep it in the public eye, especially in a country which earns so much from exports and tourism. But we must stop treating every fresh report as a shocker, a revelation. To do so is to deny the masses of accusatory evidence in existence years beforehand.

Ask about the cause of these problems and you get a strange sense of deja vu: the authorities have not been trained to handle the issue, corruption prevails, it’s easiest to ignore it. The same problems keep rearing their heads every time we look.

When I was reporting on the food industry, the Thai fishing industry held a seminar during which we were reassured that the problems were being tackled and unannounced inspections were standard practice. That was well over a year ago. So why are these reports still appearing?

If you’re going to Thailand, presumably it’s for a refreshing tropical holiday with beaches, elephants and exquisite food, rather than a grim primer in modern-day slavery. But go with a critical eye. Because shrimp paste goes into those curries. Those guys in your hostel might not admit to it, but ping pong patrons come from somewhere. The least you can do is be aware.



Today, we found a fruit seller selling 25 mangoes for the equivalent of £1. We got 12. When we got home, our host mother was shocked at the price.

That was way too expensive, apparently.

They were weird mangoes. Andy said, in a worried tone, that they “feel like water bombs”. They are made of thick juice and hair. You have to suck them. Use your teeth at your peril: you will be picking mango fur out of your teeth for weeks. You often see the stones on the floor, with hair sticking out from the sides like spikes. They look like cuttlefish.

In more Cancha funtimes – La Cancha being the name for the vast market in south-central Cochabamba – when you buy avocadoes, you tell them when you want to eat them and they give you one of the appropriate ripeness. The words “ripen at home” are nowhere to be found. I hate “ripen at home”. They only put that because “we shipped these fruit from places where there be dragons when they still resembled starchy meteorites” doesn’t fit on the label.

Just about the only thing we can’t find here is mushrooms. Andy went to two markets and a supermarket in search of the fungusy goods on Sunday but none were forthcoming. Our host mother eventually found some, somewhere. It is a tiny pack of pre-sliced, cling filmed mushrooms that apparently cost the equivalent of £1.50.

Do you think enough culinary experimentation with mangoes will make them taste like mushrooms?

If not, we could try noni. Anything that looks like an alien, cures cancer* and comes from La Cancha is a good bet.

Noni fruits with leaf on white background

(Image from here).



*it’s true because the seller wrote it on some cardboard

Didn’t know about the Garissa massacre? Blame yourself, not the media.

When I switched my laptop on on Saturday morning, all the terabytes of the internet were consumed by people’s reactions to the Paris shootings. On Facebook were expressions of everything from sympathy to anger. One of the most common responses among my friends was: “What about all these other tragedies that have happened recently?”

These posters, some propelled by enough righteous anger to fry an egg, mostly referenced Thursday’s Beirut suicide bomb and the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya. So hasty were they to shame these superficial Europeans, some even failed to spot that the Garissa massacre happened in April.


Their basic point is this: why have the Paris attacks attracted such a public orgy of grief, when comparable tragedies in countries that the west views as poor, war-torn and remote attract not a whisper? (In this post I’m ignoring, because it’s so blindingly obvious, the point that France and the UK are neighbours, most Brits have probably been to Paris, and many were personally alarmed for their friends.) Why the disproportionate media focus on Paris? Why has Facebook gone so far as to enable a special French flag filter for your profile picture, when many more people are hurting in other countries? What despicable traits of racism, thoughtlessness and derision do these imply in our collective psyche?

There’s one problem with this: Garissa received reams and reams of coverage. It attracted reportage, videos, analysis and photojournalism from The Guardian, the BBC, the Telegraph, the Daily Express and, yes, the Daily Mail. Just about every major news outlet in the UK covered it, albeit not to the same degree as Paris. Coverage included reporting the #147notjustanumber campaign to humanise the massacre’s victims. If you’re pissed you missed that one, you should change how you read the news.


The media has innumerable blind spots reporting important issues in the developing world, and this is a genuine problem. There are all kinds of reasons for this: lack of funds means major news outlets close bureaus and buy their stories from agencies such as Reuters or AFP, for instance. But the number one driver for the news agenda is what people want to read. No news editor in the world is going to see a story shooting to the top of the most-read list and say: “Meh, covered it. What else have you got?” If the media aren’t covering other massacres, it’s because you lot aren’t reading about them.

If your idea of staying informed about global events is re-sharing a Comment is Free link and glancing at BBC News’s Most Read, the main problem isn’t the media. It’s your own lack of interest. On an internet that seems to be gravitating towards Facebook like a black hole in the pocket of Mark Zuckerberg’s hoody, why seek out a broad range of news sources when Facebook could be your one-stop shop?

Where once, social media was all trading likes on angle shots and having a catty rejig of your Myspace Top 8, it has become a cover-all for messaging, professional networking, event planning and, crucially, news. Facebook now has a panel telling us what stories are trending. Where once we trusted professional editors to collate the most important happenings and topics, we now crowdsource the job to our friends, hoping that the mix of hardcore activists and viral content lovers will do the trick instead.

If you want to know more about major massacres and attacks when they happen, you have a smorgasboard of choice. Big outlets like The Guardian, The Economist, Al Jazeera and the BBC provide ample coverage of these stories. There are almost no regions on earth that don’t have their own English-language press. There are dedicated publications like The New Internationalist and Foreign Policy, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with all manner of mailing lists. Indie news websites providing alternative perspectives less palatable in the mainstream media are popping up like digital daisies.

Go ahead: look ’em up. Bookmark them. Instead of scrolling blankly through Facebook when you’re bored, see what’s going on in the world. It’s a good alternative to “liking” other people’s posts about how bored they are in a great circlejerk of stupefaction.

Share what you find. Say what you think. And if you’re waving Garissa around from your high horse like a giant banner of philosophical butthurt but only heard about it last week, please just fuck off.

It’s Lonely Foreigner time!

Those of you who have me on Facebook might have noticed that I’m starting lots of conversations there nowadays. This is because in my new home, Bolivia, I have very few real humans to interact with.

Moving abroad makes you think long and hard about your social networks. Take your friends. How do you know them? Some people spend Friday nights with friends from school or university. Others go drinking in the company of their colleagues. If they’re religious, they might have friends from their temple of choice. My mum spent a lot of time getting to know the parents of my school playmates.

When you move to a new country, you might have none of these. Here in Bolivia, I don’t. School was on the other side of the world. I’m not working yet. I don’t go to church – which, as we discovered this morning, involves signing throaty hymns on a nearby patch of grass of a Sunday because they don’t have a building. I’m here with my partner, but we don’t have kids, so there’s no school network. When I was studying in Germany, I had little in common with most international students, but at least I was in the student community.

This boils down to a miraculously empty calendar. It’s Friday, but nobody’s invited us anywhere. We’ve been in all day for the same reason. Perhaps there are cafes and bars and homes where we would be welcome, but we don’t know of them yet. So I look at Facebook. Then I look at my e-mails. Then I look back at Facebook. I hit Gmail’s Refresh button, just in case they haven’t auto-updated. I check the spam. And I feel incredibly isolated.

When you’re a new arrival, you never know where the next friend might come from. One of my closest German friends wandered up to me in a metal club after the (clearly inferior) friends I’d gone with left without telling me. An ex-colleague tells of a soul mate she met at the Brazilian migration department as they despaired together over bureaucracy. Here, my closest friend seems to have come from a Facebook comment.

Different nationalities react differently to newcomers. In Germany, that reaction was suspicion. Multiple people assured me that in the frozen northlands of Hannover, friends were hard won, but once they were won, they were friends for life. This in contrast to those superficial Bavarians, who tarted out their friendliness to any passing charlatan. This approach seemed logical enough, but the trial period seemed to be measured in years – cold comfort to an exchange student.

I responded to this with the scatter bomb approach, going to everything from climbing centres to punk bars on my own, in the hope of striking up a conversation. This was so terrifying, it may as well have been skydiving. The road from seeing someone you think you’ll click with to getting chatting and – heaven forbid – staying in touch, while simultaneously not coming across as some sort of sex pest, is paved with pitfalls.

In a new country, you have the extra hurdle of a language barrier. At home, you would just ask “Do you want to go for a beer sometime?”. In this confusing new tongue, trying to work that sentence out becomes a perilous game of guessing and second-guessing, even if you’re relatively fluent. You could say it one way, but what if that sounds needy to a native speaker? How about another? That involves using slang your geriatric high school teacher taught you, and may sound like you’ve just time travelled from 1978.

At times like this, I can see the draw of the ex-pat community. People often complain that foreigners “don’t integrate” or only hang out with their own nationality. But they fail to ask themselves when they last befriended a foreigner.

Germany was great, in the end. It took several months and lots of scary extrovert behaviour, but finally, I made solid friends who I still speak to: couchsurfers, jugglers, metalheads, colleagues and, yes, ex pats. I’ve visited them and they’ve visited me. After a year, I was still meeting people I wanted to hang out with again, and they wanted to hang out too. I was no longer this strange, friendless creature, but a fluent German speaker who knew the place and had things to share. But life moves on, and now I’m in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. New language, new culture, new start.

So, if you meet someone who’s new in town, stay in touch. If they seem sound, swap numbers. Invite them to a party. I like hanging out with people from other cultures because they offer me so much insight into my own. They make me think beyond my own borders. And trust me, if you’re ever in their shoes, you’ll appreciate it.

Diary: Tuesday 3 November, 19:25

Today, we went shopping. In a new country, even shopping is an adventure.

Bolivia does have supermarkets, but judging by the empty aisles, most people don’t use them. The prices wouldn’t be out of place in Tottenham, and in a city surrounded by farms, most people prefer the markets. The exception to this is salads and similar green leafy goods: much as Europeans complain about the spooky procedures our food is subjected to, my average day in the UK is mercifully free from dysentery.

Since we were stocking our new home with everything from detergent to soy sauce, we opted for the supermarket. The most remarkable prices were Special K cereal for BOB65 (£5.94) per box and Abuelo rum for BOB75 (£6.85) per litre.

Our host family were taken aback when we said we would need cooking facilities. It was as if we’d asked to build a permanent packing crate fort in the living room. We were perplexed: how else were we supposed to get our food into our tummies? Apparently, it’s unusual for young Bolivians to cook. They live with their families for far longer than Brits, and often, mum is cooking (equality for women being a whole different ball game here).

Since our hosts weren’t expecting two cooks, our kitchen is out in the garden, on a broad, wood-beamed terrace. We have gas from a canister and a huge grill for BBQs. A willow tree shelters the lawn, and the leaves of the lemon verbena shrub by the kitchen door can be made into tea. It’s tranquil, except for the dogs.

The dogs live outside. They spend most of their time attempting to eat each other in a playful way, unless we’re around. Then, they make a concerted attempt to eat whatever we’re eating.

Niko is a seven-month-old German shepherd who doesn’t know his own strength. Paco is probably a Yorkshire terrier, and is so energetic that he gambols like a lamb. When he twitches his ears, he looks like a gremlin.

This is his exact facial expression.

When we bring food out, there is no peace. They have their eyes on the prize. Before you can sit down, Paco has jumped onto your chair. Just as you’ve shooed him off, there is a great heaving from below as Niko sidles up next to you and dumps his head on the table. He is so big that he doesn’t need to climb anything to get to the table, but his facial expression suggests that this won’t stop him from trying. Before long, he will be able to walk under the table, arch his back, and walk off wearing it like a tortoise.

The only thing that will reliably remove both of them is the meowing of a cat. Fortunately, a cat has adopted our family. At the first glimpse of a whisker-tip, the slightest slink of a shadow, the dogs dash off to harass it, leaving us to a couple of unperturbed bites of avocado sandwich.

The remote-controlled auto-meow machine is a work in progress.

Water worries and Sick Backpacker Face

Yesterday morning, my shower was cold. We’re in an upmarket hostel in downtown Cochabamba, and this was the first time the hot water had failed. We knew hot water didn’t come as standard in Bolivia, and that we’d be taking a few cold showers in our time here. As it turns out, that isn’t even the half of it.

Leafing through the classifieds in the local paper, I found plenty of flat adverts that included “agua” alongside bedrooms, garages, etc. I wondered what that meant. Perhaps it meant that there was hot water? Or drinking water?

I took an intensive Spanish course this week, and we soon broached the subject of water.

“Do you like it when it rains?” my teacher asked.

“Sometimes,” I said.

“I don’t like it, really, but Cochabamba is having a drought at the moment,” she said. “I should get water three times a week, but I only get it once a week at the moment. A thin stream, for about four hours.”

Ah. I see.

It’s not only hot water that doesn’t come as standard. Water in general doesn’t come as standard. Even people who, by British standards, would be middle-class – university educated, a graduate job – don’t necessarily have water more than once a week.

The piping that exists is apparently old, narrow and in places slightly broken, allowing contaminants into the water.

In some of the poorer southern areas of town, I’m told people don’t have running water at all, instead relying on wells.

Dotted along the roads are signs saying “Mas inversiones para mi agua” – more investment in my water. Apparently, there has been a plan to build a large dam for about thirty years (locals tell me this, I haven’t checked my facts yet). The dam would provide water for the entire town, but the project seems to be dead in the water (ha, ha).

For now, if you can’t afford one of the houses with 24/7 water, it’s a question of turning on the tap at your area’s allotted time and filling up buckets, tubs and containers, then scrimping and saving in the hope that it lasts until this time next week.

Sick Backpacker Face

In two weeks in this hostel, I have seen four backpackers wiped out with stomach gripes. The first was our Danish room-mate. One night, I woke up to the sound of her talking to God on the porcelain telephone, and for the next four days, she was prostrated on her bed, making occasional dashes for the communal bathroom. There have been three more like her since. You start to recognise the sick people: the ones who aren’t up at breakfast, who are in bed all day looking fed up. They have Sick Backpacker Face.

Bolivia is notorious among backpackers for food poisoning. Do you think you have an iron stomach? Shut up. I don’t care how long you’ve been backpacking. You don’t. Don’t buy that street food. No, it isn’t like that pop-up Venezuelan arepa concept in Shoreditch. Just don’t.

The common wisdom seems to be: don’t eat street food, don’t eat salad, wash any fresh produce from the market, and don’t drink the tap water without boiling it. Bolivians tell me they also get sick, although not as often, and are careful about street food.

Another sick room-mate explained yesterday that she’d been to the doctor after a week of diarrhoea, who’d told her that it was parasites, and that in serious cases, they could spread to other organs. Judging by her comments and the Rough Guide Bolivia health page – one of those things you read through a grimace while wishing you weren’t reading it – she has amoebic dysentery. As Andy said, at least she won’t get lonely while she’s recuperating.

The router in this hostel appears to be dodgy. It cuts out constantly. But lately, I’ve noticed that it intervenes just at the right time: when I’m starting to think about an ex, when I should really be in bed, when I’ve spent too much time online… Maybe the router has a soul. At least someone is looking out for me here.

To end on a high note: we’ve found a room to rent! It’s in a house with a Bolivian family. The mother loves lace crochet, they have a very big scary dog and a very little happy dog, and our wall has a giant picture of Captain America on it. We’re moving on Sunday. This whole emigration thing is starting to feel pretty real.

Diary: Monday 26 October, 10:00

We left home two weeks today. You could easily say that things have gone pear-shaped. My planned volunteering fell through. After spending nearly a day on another application, they said they “won’t be taking anybody for the foreseeable future”. Andy’s phone got stolen on day four, and after three visits to the police station to get a certificate, his insurance company told him phones weren’t covered. After contacting them once saying it was a phone.

Probably the single greatest setback is our discovery that we won’t be able to re-enter the country in January without a special visa. The letter of the law is that tourists can stay for 90 days per calendar year. Great, we thought. We’re going in October, so we get our 90 days in 2015, followed by our 90 days in 2016. On Saturday, we found out that they define “calendar year” as “365 days from the date you entered”. Some say we would have a good chance of just blagging at the border, but we’re not convinced.

This means we both need some kind of solid volunteering or work lined up within the next two months, and that we have a mountain of paperwork to look forward to.

But things haven’t gone pear-shaped. I’m learning more Spanish every single day. My contact book – well, the contacts list on my Bolivian Pay As You Go Nokia – is growing. We spent two days in Torotoro National Park, where the earth is blue and red and condors glide. And we’re checking out intensive language courses and volunteering positions with Sustainable Bolivia.

Torotoro is remote. From Cochabamba, we had to get a minibus for four hours. Paved roads soon turned into cobbles, which gave way to dirt tracks. Our co-passengers were two Quechua families. A lively three-year-old kept playing peek-a-boo with me and Andy, while a baby just put its face against the headrest and stared at us. It had a very round face, and its cheeks wobbled like jelly every time we went over a bumpy bit.

When people say things are “breathtaking”, they usually mean it figuratively. They mean that a place is stunningly beautiful. Torotoro was breathtaking in the more literal sense that hiking at 3,700 metres puffs you out, like that dream where you’re trying to run but every step is like wading through treacle.

Torotoro National Park Bolivia

We hiked through caves, over ruddy domed rocks on mountain tops, and through a cleft leading to a waterfall. We saw cactuses in bloom, rabbits with tails (did it have a fling with a squirrel? What?) and condors. That was a really special moment.

Viscacha rabbit with tail Toro

We also went on a caving expedition that was so hair-raising that I’ve pitched it to a large magazine. With any luck I’ll be linking you to it there.

Andy’s blog, with a longer entry and more photos, is here:

Yesterday, we went back to the market for the first time since Andy’s phone was nicked. We bought quinoa and fresh vegetables, and cooked them into a lovely, healthy lunch with a German hostel-mate. Nothing was stolen this time and it was a really chilled afternoon.