Shackled, beaten, lured by false promises, and enslaved aboard floating “dungeons” is the fate of many fishermen in the South China Sea who provide the seafood that often end up on our dinner tables during this Lenten Season. We sacrifice by giving up meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays, but are we also sacrificing the lives of the poor and most vulnerable with our seafood choices?

Husbands, fathers, sons and brothers are lured into a lifestyle with little or no chance of escape in the hope of finding a job to support their families.

For Catholics, March 6 is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent when we often give up something we enjoy such as chocolate, a favorite television show, social media and meat on Fridays.

Instead, could the true sacrifice be to look at where our seafood is sourced and demand that the seafood we purchase is sustainable and does not come at the cost of others’ freedom?

My hope is that all Catholics this Lent will make choices that could help put an end to modern-day slavery through their purchasing choices. A 40-day challenge with the hope of turning it into an every day practice to save lives.

Slaves who were once prevalent on Southern Plantations harvesting crops now reap the bounty from our seas aboard these slave ships.

Here’s how it happens … a young man in Thailand takes a cab ride down to the docks to learn about employment opportunities with the local fishing industry. After realizing this was not for him but with no money for cab fare, he then becomes a victim of labor trafficking to pay off his debt. Or, it could look like Lang Long, who according to a New York Times article, accepted a trafficker’s offer to travel across the Thai border for a construction job after watching his younger siblings go hungry. Instead it led him to three brutal years in captivity at sea. Read more about Long’s ordeal and sea slaves here: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/27/world/outlaw-ocean-thailand-fishing-sea-slaves-pets.html?_r=1

They labor up to 20 hours a day with little or no pay and are subject to beatings or even death if the work is deemed unsatisfactory. Some victims, as young as 12, leave their families and are held captive at sea. Many never set foot on land or see their families for a decade.

Fr. Bruno Ciceri a Vatican delegate for the Apostleship of the Sea, which provides pastoral care for seafarers and their families, said “We have to be educated. Frozen food here is cheap, but it’s because people are exploited, because there is forced labor, because there are trafficked people that work aboard these fishing vessels.

“We talk a lot about ‘Fair Trade.’ I don’t know the day when we will have ‘fair trade’ also in fishing. That will make a difference.”

Fr. Ciceri said it is common when a broker will contract fishermen with a promise of a certain salary. Of this, maybe only 20 percent is given directly to the fisherman and 80 percent will be held by the broker, only to be given over after the fisherman has completed a three-year contract. If he leaves before this, he loses everything.

For the average person who wants to do something, he continued, even the awareness of these practices, and why the products may be so cheap, is a good first step. It’s true that we would always like to save money, but maybe sometimes we could consider buying the more expensive product that we know pays people justly, he said.

We are the consumers. We have the power to make changes because we drive the demand. Imagine if everyone started to demand seafood, among other items produced, use fair labor practices. What would happen? It would reinvent the industry. No demand. No supply — and changes would begin to happen.

Inquire about sustainability and where your seafood is sourced. If you purchase fish from Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Yemen, Uganda, Brazil, Paraguay, you are likely contributing to forced labor and child labor. If you purchase shrimp from Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia or Thailand, you are contributing to child labor, forced labor or child forced labor.

Being an informed consumer may cost us a little more time and money, but we have a choice. Victims of labor and human trafficking do not.

Heed the words of Pope Francis who urged us “not to become accomplices to this evil, not turn away from the suffering of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, who are deprived of their freedom and dignity. Instead, may we have the courage to touch the suffering flesh of Christ revealed in the faces of those countless persons whom (Jesus) call ‘the least of these my brethren…’”

ASK: “Do you sell sustainable and where is it sourced?” Encourage Companies to Sell Fair Trade Products and let businesses know this is important to you.
BUY: Use your purchasing power to buy Fair Trade products at local stores. If unavailable, look for the country of origin on products. Download the Sweat & Toil app on your phone or visit www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods/ for a list of products and countries to avoid.

For more information on maritime trafficking, visit http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/compass.cfm.

By Christine Commerce, Human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator – March 3, 2019