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How the AP uncovered secret slavery behind the seafood in your supermarket

April 20, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
An 18-month investigation into the use of slave labor in southeast Asia to bring seafood to American restaurants and supermarkets earned the Associated Press a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Since the report was made public, more than 2,000 slaves have been freed. For more on the daring expose, Hari Sreenivasan talks to Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a startling expose about slave labor in the world of seafood.

This week, we’re looking at some of the Pulitzer Prize winners. And the Associated Press’ 18-month-long investigation won the prize for public service. It tracked the widespread use of slave labor in Southeast Asia and how it’s part in a supply chain bringing seafood to American restaurants and supermarkets.

Fishermen were beaten and caged, and reporters even hid in the back of trucks for days to pursue the story. Since then, more than 2,000 slaves have been freed.

Martha Mendoza was part of that reporting team, and joins me now.

Martha, what was the catalyst for the investigation in the first place? Unfortunately, we have heard of slave-like conditions in different parts of the world before. What made you want to follow this?

MARTHA MENDOZA, Associated Press: Well, Slavery at sea wasn’t a secret, but the stories that were being told came from rescued slaves.

And, therefore, there was no traction because the response was, these guys are safe. There is not really a problem anymore. So, we set out to do what some people warned us was going to be impossible. We wanted to find captive slaves, and then we wanted to track their catch with detailed accuracy all the way back to the dinner table to get people who were at the other end of this supply chain engaged.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how do you find the captive slaves in the first place?

MARTHA MENDOZA: My colleagues spoke at length and for many months with people who had escaped, as well as human rights activists who worked with people who had escaped.

And they had some miss, going to places where this wasn’t happening or false leads. But when they heard about this island in Indonesia called Benjina, they had a pretty good idea there might be labor abuse going on there. And it was a plane trip to a boat ride to a second boat ride to an island that can only be reached at certain times of the year.

And that’s where my colleagues did, indeed, find a slave island.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, when they get to this island, obviously, it’s not the red carpet. I mean, are you hiding throughout this process when you’re trying to document what is on the island, who lives here, what the conditions are?

MARTHA MENDOZA: Well, actually, the AP reporters, the AP team split up.

So, some were ostensibly interested in the fishing operations, and others were at the same time kind of checking out other parts of what was happening on the island. When Robin McDowell, who was there, realized that a number of the men were from Burma, she asked Esther Htusan to fly and boat, make the trip there to Burma.

And when Esther arrived, that’s when the story really broke open for her, because these men wanted to tell her their story. They were shoving pieces of papers in their hands with their parents’ names and phone numbers and their villages begging them to tell their families back home that they were alive.

And when they asked to see more of these men, they actually were taken to a graveyard with more than 70 bodies and false names on the signs above them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what’s the trail? What’s the paper trail between how that seafood that these slaves are fishing actually gets to a grocery store in the United States?

MARTHA MENDOZA: Well, we videoed and documented the seafood being loaded on to one refrigerated cargo ship.

That boat had a satellite tracker in it, and that tracker was pinging to a locator, and we watched the boat via the Internet. And for two weeks, we tracked it into port. When it arrived in port, AP met it and watched the seafood being unloaded into pickup trucks, and followed those trucks to factories.

We were able to search and find the companies in Thailand that were then shipping to the United States, and go to these American seafood distributors to figure out where their fish ends up.

A lot of time, when you’re in a supermarket, you’re going to see a piece of fish under some clear plastic wrap with a label on it. It’s not even going to say which distributor it came from. So, there was a lot of steps in between. But, eventually, we were able to track it to Wal-Mart, Safeway, Sysco, Albertsons, and products like Fancy Feasts and Iams as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so since story, more than 2000 men have been freed. And you were able to document some of those stories of them reuniting with their families.

MARTHA MENDOZA: Yes.

So about a week after we finished our story, authorities went to the island of Benjina and began interviewing men. They talked to a couple who described their horrific, desperate situation and also told the authorities that they would be beaten and hurt for telling their story. And they were told, no, we’re going to rescue you.

Word got out on the island, and pretty soon they just went ahead and made the announcement, anyone who wants to come with us can come. And hundreds of people began pouring down to the docks, jumping out of boat windows, running out of the jungle.

And on that day alone, 400 — close to 400 men were rescued. And, yes, it grew to 2,000. One man we followed home, Myint Naing, had been gone for 22 years. His sister saw him walking into the village, and screamed and cried and held him. And then, when his mother saw him, she was actually overwhelmed and had to — she lost her breath for a while.

It was a very sweet and moving moment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the Thai government said that they would do or what have they done since this has been published?

MARTHA MENDOZA: The Thai government, prior to us publishing and as we published story after story, kept making commitments to do better. They have made it so that, if you are a victim of human trafficking, they say are you no longer treated as an illegal immigrant and simply deported as a criminal.

They have vowed to make prosecutions more of a priority, and one of the pieces of this we did involved shrimp processing. And the shrimp sector there in Thailand has — says they’re moving all shrimp processing in house. So they’re not going to outsource any shrimp processing in sheds, where there is much less oversight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press, thanks so much.

MARTHA MENDOZA: Thank you, Hari.

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