Patima Tungpuchayakul

Slave liberator

Patima Tungpuchayakul’s mission is to end modern slave labour in the Thai fishing industry. She finds the labourers, brings them home and helps them to find their place in society again.

In the southeast Asian seas, tens of thousands of men work as slaves for Thailand’s fishing companies. As a result of decades of overfishing, Thai vessels have to go far out at sea to still catch some fish. And because many Thai workers don’t want to be away for months at a time, human traffickers have stepped in.

For a few hundred dollars each, vulnerable migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos are sold to the fishing companies. They are kept at sea for years on end under horrendous and violent circumstances. ‘These companies are ruining ecosystems and destroying lives,’ says Patima Tungpuchayakul, co-founder of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) and a special guest at the Movies that Matter Festival 2019. ‘They buy the labour for 800 dollars and work them to death.’ Much of the fish they catch ends up in Europe and the United States.

Tungpuchayakul, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, is committed to finding these modern slaves, many of whom are held in Indonesian coastal villages, and returning them home. Her search-and-rescue missions are often dangerous. Not only is she taking on criminal organizations, she is also targeted by corrupt authorities. ‘The fishing companies have sent police to shut us down and thugs to threaten us,’ she explains in the breathtakingly beautiful documentary Ghost Fleet. Still, Tungpuchayakul and her team have managed to liberate more than 4.000 workers from modern slavery.

After the men are liberated, however, Tungpuchayakul’s work is not finished. ‘Of the men who come back, generally only 10 per cent are able to reintegrate or find work,’ she told an audience at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018. ‘That’s why one of my goals is to have a place for them to exist. Because when these men can’t find work, many of them return to the fishing vessels.’