Young man endures nine years of forced labor on a fishing boat

Most Americans think of Labor Day as a time to say farewell to summer. While Labor Day originated as a holiday to commemorate the achievement of workers, those around the world who are forced to work in horrendous conditions with no pay have little reason to celebrate. However, there is U.S. legislation that helps battle this despicable practice — but the law is at risk of not being renewed.

Story by Nila Douanesouvanh and Cat-Dan Lai-Smith. Photo by Thongxay Phavixay.
Published September 1, 2011 at 12:00am PDT

The horrors of slavery and prison ships often resonate from history lessons or stories of war. In fact, more Americans died as prisoners of war on British prison ships during the American War of Independence than the combination of those who died in battle.

What many people do not realize is that countless young people and children are still being imprisoned as victims of trafficking and forced labor.

A modern-day slave

Bounmy (not his real name), now 26, was a modern-day slave who survived nine harrowing years on a fishing boat off the coast of Thailand. Eating nothing other than fish for the duration of his ordeal, he was forced to work without pay around the clock, with only three to four hours of sleep a day.

The second-oldest son of nine children, Bounmy dropped out from school in fourth grade to help his parents look for food and to work in the rice fields. Once he turned 15, Bounmy and three other boys from his village left home in Laos’ Savannaket province to find work so they could send money back to their families.

“It was my first trip away from my village, and I was very nervous,” Bounmy says. According to a World Vision report on human trafficking from Laos, approximately 80 percent of migrants cross the borders in search of better economic opportunities.

At sea for nine years

After four months of working with little or no pay in Bangkok, Thailand, Bounmy and another friend were told about the opportunity to work on a fishing boat.

“My friend said it was good pay. Before I went out on the boat, the employer told me I would get full payment after I came back with the boat,” Bounmy says with sadness in his eyes.

Little did he know at the time that he would be forced to work without pay and not return to the Thai coast for nine years.

“If there was an emergency, they just called support from somewhere and docked the boat on [the] Malaysian coast,” Bounmy explains. “When I got the opportunity, I always told them that I missed my family and would like to return to Laos.”

Meanwhile, Bounmy’s family was left to imagine the worst. “I always went and asked other people in the village if my son had come back from Thailand. But no one had heard anything about him,” says Nouseo, 49, Bounmy’s mother. According to his father, Thongdy, 54, his family thought that he was dead because no one had seen him or knew where he was.

Some 44 percent of parents whose children had migrated to Thailand admitted that they don’t know where their children were. Of young Lao people that returned home, 50 percent said their migration experience was terrible, 40 percent had been denied freedom of movement, and 13 percent had been sexually abused.

Arrested, jailed, then finally freed

In February 2010, the boat’s engine broke and the boat was finally brought back to Thailand for repairs. Unfortunately, Bounmy was then arrested by the Thai police when the boat arrived back on the Thai coast.

“They told me that I did not have any working documents or a passport,” Bounmy says.

He was then detained in a Bangkok jail for nearly three months. Together with World Vision’s Human Anti-Trafficking Project, the Laotian government rescued him and helped him to return safely to his home.

U.S. legislation to fight worldwide trafficking

Unlike the thousands of patriots who died on British prison ships, the United States can still rescue innocent young people, like Bounmy, who are being held captive on vessels today.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 is the cornerstone of U.S. policies against modern-day slavery. This act has provided comprehensive federal laws that support local and international anti-trafficking projects like the one that ultimately rescued Bounmy.

However, the TVPA must be renewed every few years, and the current version expires on September 30, 2011. Congress must introduce bipartisan legislation immediately so that there will be no gap in the fight to stop young people and children like Bounmy from being exploited and forced to work in traumatic conditions against their will.

‘I do not want anyone to face the same misery that I did’

Now, every week, Bounmy retells his story publicly. “I do not want anyone to face the same misery that I did,” he says. “I took a big risk by wanting to earn money in another country. I learned we can work in our own country with less pay, but be happy and safe.”

Three ways you can help

Pray for children around the world who are being harmed by child labor practices. Pray for people trying to help these children and for a transformation of those who are forcing children into these roles. Pray that Congress would renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Call your members of Congress to voice your support for the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

Give monthly to support children affected by trafficking and exploitation. Your monthly gift will help provide assistance like safe shelter, food, education, trauma recovery counseling, and more.