By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A fisherman from Myanmar described meeting a job broker while having a beer with a friend in the fishing port town of Kantang in southern Thailand.
While chatting with the broker, he passed out drunk, without paying for his beer. Four days later, the broker told him he owed her 2,000 baht ($50) for his unpaid beer and his four-day stay in her home, and would have to work to pay off his debt.
He ended up enslaved on a fishing boat, working five years without pay, he told a court in Thailand's southern Trang province as the proceedings began last week in a human trafficking case against nine defendants.
The defendants include the broker, as well as the owner of Boonlarp Fishing Co. Ltd., whom prosecutors say is the chief of the trafficking ring.
"This case is important because before the police could only catch the small fish, but this is the first time they got the big fish," said Papop Siamhan, a lawyer for the trafficking victims and project coordinator for the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) rights group.
The defendants have denied all charges, Papop said.
Thailand has come under fire after numerous reports uncovered slavery and human trafficking in its multibillion-dollar seafood industry.
The government recently amended its laws in an effort to combat human trafficking and slavery, ratcheting up penalties to life imprisonment and the death penalty in cases where their victims had died.
The Issara Institute, a Bangkok-based anti-trafficking organization, has been a key point of contact for these trafficked fishermen and said reports of abuses on fishing boats operating out of Kantang began as early as 2008.
Fishermen from Myanmar on boats run by Boonlarp began calling Issara Institute's 24-hour hotline to complain of being exploited and physically abused in May 2015.
Threats against the fishermen escalated, until on Oct. 14, 2015, one fishermen phoned the hotline and said a captain had threatened to behead him and throw his body overboard. He pleaded with the hotline operator: "I do not want to die young. Please help us!", according to the Issara Institute.
Last October, Thai authorities from several agencies, working with the Issara Institute, went out to sea and rescued men from the Boonlarp boats.
Last Friday, the Kantang case kicked off the first of 42 court hearings scheduled over five months, but the plaintiffs' lawyers filed a motion at the second hearing on Thursday to move the case to a court in Bangkok.
"We wanted to move the case because we are worried about the safety of the victims," said Preeda Tongchumnum, another lawyer on the case, who works with the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based worker rights organization.
"They have faced abuse by the broker and her husband, so they are scared, Even though they're under the care of state authorities, if they come to Bangkok, they would feel safer," she said.
Proceedings have been adjourned until July 26, when the Supreme Court's decision on the motion to move the case will be read.
The defense lawyers on the case could not be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)