The slaves were young men from Southeast Asia who answered ads promising them construction work in Indonesia. But once they were onboard the ships they thought were transporting them to their new jobs, they were enslaved and put to work on factory fishing vessels.
Some were caged and beaten, others died or injured. When the ships occasionally came to port, they did so on remote jungle islands where there was little hope of escape. Over the years several men did manage to slip into the jungle and made their way back to civilization. It was through these runaways that an AP journalist heard their stories and made their plight known.
If you didn’t know about all this, don’t feel bad. The story got minimal coverage. Slavery in Southeast Asia it seems, is not such a big deal in our western news cycle.
Currently the Indonesian and Thai governments are responding. They’ve arrested a number of captains and boat owners and have also impounded several of the ships that were guilty of transporting the slave caught fish.
The list of American retailers who bought and sold slave sourced fish reads like a who’s who of major supermarkets and pet food retailers. Some of that seafood inevitably found its way here to our corner of the Appalachians either by being processed into cat food or sold direct to consumers. Either way it was on our shelves.
I think there were two reasons I was sickened when reading this story.
First, it’s just hard to believe that this kind of wholesale straight-up slavery exists today. It’s more comfortable for me to pretend humans are basically good and that the world is free from the kind of people who kidnap and enslave others.
Part of me wants to make-believe that this kind barbarity is the stuff of history books. But the dirty reality is that there are more slaves in the world today than at any time in human history, by some estimates 27,000,000. I’ll spell it out, yes that’s twenty-seven million, three times the population of Virginia.
The second reason I felt sick is more personal. See, one of the reasons the slave fishing business and others like it still exist today is because I have an appetite for cheap food.
I’m part of the problem. I love a deal and I’m frugal to a fault sometimes. Which just means that I’m cheap.
The sad truth is that my pursuit of cheap food has on some level contributed to human slavery. When I or anyone else puts to-good-to-be-true priced food in our mouths, or in our pets food dish, we are in all probability, fueling the very industries that enslave and indenture other human beings.
In fact, when the price of anything seems too good to be true. It probably is. Whether it’s the seven dollar solid oak towel bar, the four dollar shirt, or the sixty-nine cent can of pet food; those deals probably come with a very sad string attached to it.
Don’t get me wrong, I‘m not suggesting there’s a simple solution or quick fix to ending slavery. And guilt tripping folks who are trying to stretch their food dollar is also not going so solve the problem
But there is one thing we all can do: and that is to eat local. A partial answer to food fueled slavery is growing, raising, or catching some of what goes into our mouths; and or buying it from our neighbors who do those things.
The further the distance between our teeth to the source of our food, the less we know about not only where our food comes from, but even more importantly, who our food comes from.
I used to think about eating local mostly in terms of where my food came from, and gave little thought about who it came from. Sure, I like knowing that the woman who lives up on the mountain, who we buy sweet potatoes from, is getting a fair price for her food, but honestly I never really thought about my shopping cart being tethered to human bondage.
So whether it’s a great deal on tilapia or that can of stinky stuff that makes your furry BFF dash to the kitchen the moment she hears the electric can opener, it would be a righteous idea to start factoring in not just where those fish were caught, but who caught those fish.
So buy a fishing license, put a deer in the freezer and throw some kale seeds in the garden. Who knows – you might just be helping set someone free.
Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at pastorjeffell.com. and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.