Seafood slavery: God will not be mocked

The malaise in our world today is that slavery makes a mockery of God. I had this proposition in the back of my mind while in Bangkok, Thailand – a country from which Australia imports large quantities of seafood.

In the fishing and processing of the seafood we and the world consume, a longstanding problem prevails – the forced labour slavery of trafficked Cambodian and Burmese migrants is pervasive.

The fight against modern slavery

What do I mean by modern-day slavery? I mean “a system of dishonouring and degrading people through the violent coercion of their activity [e.g. work] in conditions that dehumanise them”.

This system in the Southeast Asian seafood industry led to 38 per cent of migrant fishermen being trafficked in the five years to 2016.

In Thailand I heard how 90 per cent of fishermen reported working seven days a week, with 75 per cent working 16 hours a day.

One in seven of these fishermen were physically abused.

But what shocked me more was the violence that keeps these people in modern-day slavery at almost no real risk to the traffickers. I learned that one in seven of these fishermen were physically abused, 31.5 per cent witnessed abuse of a crewmate at sea and more than 6 per cent had witnessed a murder at sea.

In preparation for my trip to Bangkok this week, I read about Dom (name changed for his security) and his son, who were both exploited in Thailand’s massive fishing industry.

Dom was a poor Cambodian farmer with no education, living in a rural Cambodian village. In his struggle to provide for his family, he responded to a promise of a job for four years on a fishing boat because it sounded great for him and his family, who had debts they couldn’t pay.

But after leaving Cambodia for Thailand, the outlook changed, and he was placed on a boat with 31 other Cambodian men. His work conditions were brutal and cruel, with almost no time to rest while hauling nets for 18-20 hours a day far out into the ocean.

His “good paying job” was a scam and he was left with no way to provide for his family.

Simple mistakes by a crew member resulted in being beaten, thrown overboard and left for dead.

The four years Dom was promised turned into seven. He was told he would be paid 16,000 Thai baht (about $A720), but he was paid only one-eighth of his promised wages. Dom thought he had taken a job to support his family but he was badly deceived. His “good paying job” was a scam and he was left with no way to provide for his family.

Dom didn’t know if he would ever see his family again or make it out alive. There was no way to escape – until one day, seven years later, the boat was seized by foreign authorities for fishing in illegal waters. Six months later he was sent home, only to find one of his sons was gone.

Dom’s long absence had been hard on the family, so his son, not knowing his father had been trafficked, went to the same recruiter to find work. Dom’s son had also been deceived, trafficked into Thailand, and endured the same abuse and working conditions as Dom had.

For the tens of thousands of people like Dom, trapped by violence in modern-day slavery, justice seems out of reach. It is very possible that, to them, God seems out of reach and the power of their masters appears to make a mockery of God’s Kingdom… But “God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7 NRSV).

While I was in the air on my return to Sydney from Bangkok, I remembered this passage, which Gary Haugen, the CEO and Founder of International Justice Mission, had spoken from at the annual US Presidents National Prayer Gathering which drew 3000 people from 140 nations.

He said in 20 years of facing powerful and violent men, the only words that came with force to his heart “were these four words from the Apostle Paul in Galatians: that God is not mocked.”

In our hearts, we know and believe that Jesus is Lord, that he loves justice; and those who love the violence of slavery, God hates with a passion (Psalm 11).

But with 40 million people in slavery, how do we trust this in the reality of God’s Kingdom today? Will he and can he bring justice on earth, as it is in heaven?

Haugen shared that “the Ancient biblical vision [is] of a holy and an almighty God who personally oversees the massive dustbin of history. And while the pride of brutal and evil men may blister for a time, it is the Holy creator of God who sweeps the confederacies of slavery, the thousand-year Reichs, the gulag archipelagos, the apartheid regimes, the Berlin walls, and the Interahamwe [Hutu] militias – all into the dumpster infernos of their own making.”

IJM has begun to see the dismantling of profitable recruiting networks.

Through International Justice Mission, I am witnessing how this holy faithfulness of God should keep us humbling seeking what is right and doing what is good.

After two years in supporting and cooperating with the efforts of Thai and Cambodian anti-human trafficking police, prosecutors and other NGOs, IJM has begun to see the dismantling of profitable recruiting networks that victimised Dom, his son, and so many others.

With the help of IJM, Dom’s case was brought to trial and he was able to testify, with his son, against his abusers and account for the brutal conditions he endured. This was the first such experience in his life and he was so proud. Because of his great bravery, all three perpetrators were convicted under Cambodia’s Trafficking Law.

When justice is served, it changes the fear equation. It sends a signal that impunity will not reign indefinitely. It reminds us that the God of Justice reigns and his followers will bring such good news to those who remain enslaved.

Dom’s case was brought to trial and he was able to testify, with his son, against his abusers.

Despite the size and scale of the challenge in the Thai fishing industry and around the world, slavery will not make a mockery of God. For: “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror” (Psalm 10).

Jacob Sarkodee is director of strategic partnerships, International Justice Mission Australia ( Twitter: @Sarkodee