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Human trafficking: A fisherman’s story

San Francisco has some of the country’s highest reports of human trafficking. It’s one of the top 10 cities in the U.S. where trafficking is the worst. The practice is often called modern-day slavery: traffickers use sexual exploitation, fraud, and forced labor to keep people powerless. It’s the second most profitable crime in the world, generating more than $32 billion per year, just behind drug trafficking.

Since 2010, the state of California has investigated thousands of human trafficking cases and arrested nearly 2,000 people. It’s a difficult process. Victims often don’t come forward  because of threats from their traffickers.

When I meet Sonny, he’s sitting on a bench in Golden Gate Park. He’s smiling; his eyes are dark; his flannel shirt well-pressed.

“I like it, being a fisherman,” he says. “I especially like fishes. And the income is pretty good.”

The name Sonny suits him well -- light and uplifting. But it isn’t his real name; he chose to use an alias. He’s also speaking through a translator -- though he speaks English, he wants to make sure all of the details are right.

A lucrative job

As a local fisherman back in Indonesia, Sonny says he made about $150 each month.

“On a foreign ship it will be $350 per month,” he says. And for six years he worked on foreign ships -- Japanese fishing companies that hired crews from different parts of his country.

Sonny took a break from the work after his wife had their first son. When he was ready to go back, he called a local recruitment  agency in Indonesia that organizes contract work for fisherman. Sonny says they had helped him find work in the past. And they did it again.

“They said that they're going to pay me $300 every month, plus bonus pay,” he says. “Because I haven't worked for a little while, I decided, yes I will go.”

Recruitment agencies like this one are common in Indonesia -- there are more than 500 of them. Sonny signed a contract to work for two years in Hawaii; a few weeks later, he boarded a plane.

“I flew from Australia to Fiji,” he recalls. “Fiji to Western Samoa flying. Western Samoa to America, flying again. From there a ship picked me up.”

A harrowing journey

From Samoa, Sonny switched to a  smaller boat, and was told that a different employment agency would work out his visa during his trip. He waited for the fishing ship, and waited.

“Within those three days they didn’t give us food, so I was looking for food myself,” he says. “I asked from other ships, folks from other ships, and because of fisherman solidarity, they gave us food.”

For two weeks they waited. Food was still scarce, and more people boarded from the Philippines and Indonesia.

When he finally was transferred, it was to a boat that wasn’t mentioned on his contract.

“So I asked the captain. and he said: 'Oh that’s okay. It’s normal,'” Sonny says. Then the captain took his passport, and everyone else’s. They were sailing toward the ocean near Samoa and Hawaii. That’s where Sonny finally started working -- long hours, from 2 p.m. to 3 a.m. each day. Sonny pushed himself hard. His contract promised him a bonus for every ton of fish he pulled in -- $250 U.S. dollars on top of his salary. But Sonny wasn’t getting his bonuses. So from the boat, he called the agency that had hired him, back in Indonesia.   

“I had three numbers,” he recalls, “Cell phone, office, etc. None of the phones were actually working.”

A growing problem

Attorney Cindy Liou at the Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach Center says she’s heard of this disappearing agency situation before, from other clients who’ve been trafficked.

“I’ve had Filipino clients who are with agencies in the Philippines,” she says. “They also incurred a huge debt, and come here to find out the job they were promised is something else and the agency, it’s gone.”

Liou says most media coverage focuses on sex trafficking, but labor trafficking is an increasing problem. Yet it’s only fairly recently that the U.S. passed labor trafficking laws.  Still, many cases never go to court -- people just want to move on.  “Most of our clients’ goals are to be safe and stabilized,” says Liou. “The first thing on their mind isn’t about, how can I lock someone up or sue somebody?”


Sonny never considered breaking his contract. That would have meant a $1,000 fine, and that’s almost four months of work. He needed the money. He had a daughter to think about back in Java.

“I was told that we are going to operate in San Francisco area,” he says. They sailed 17 days. Things got worse on the boat, and food was scarce. “Part of my job is to clean all of the fish,” Sonny recalls. “So sometimes I just took a piece and I ate it.”

If you look at Sonny’s hands, you’ll see that one of his fingers is crooked and scarred. While he’s talking, he sometimes puts one hand over the other to hide it. His hand was wrapped in the line -- the pressure nearly bent his finger in half. “So my finger at the time was almost broken,” he says. “I told him I needed a doctor.”

There was no doctor on board, and the pain grew more intense. When the vessel docked in San Francisco, Sonny saw a chance to run. “They were drinking, so they were all drunk,” he says. “So I thought that since they were all drunk, this was a good time for me to just sneak in and just get my passport. So my friend also agreed, so we said: 'Okay, let's get our passports and leave.'”

Sonny didn’t have any idea where to go. He bought a calling card and phoned Indonesia. His family searched on  Facebook to see if there were any Indonesians near Sonny who could help. Eventually, a pastor who heard of his situation contacted him.

Finding a way

The pastor directed Sonny to the the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco, where they helped Sonny with food and clothing, and took him to the hospital. But like most domestic violence shelters in the city, this one was only for women. So the organization convinced the Indonesian consulate to pay for Sonny to stay in a hotel instead of a homeless shelter. They also connected  Sonny to his lawyer. Finally, things started to change.

“When I think about it, I feel like I was being enslaved,” Sonny says. “Because my salary was not according to the agreement, I was put in a ship that was not on the agreement, and working 20 hours [a day] -- that’s way too much. That's too unjust.”

Today, Sonny’s got a work visa and, in five years, he can apply for a green card. He lives with his wife and now two children in San Francisco, not far from Golden Gate Park.

“My daughter goes to school, and she is happy to be together, because we haven’t seen each other for a long time,” he smiles.

The ship’s captain was never prosecuted -- and Sonny’s not interested in pursuing it. He now works in a liquor store in San Francisco where he makes $13 an hour, with no plans at all to return to sea.

This story originally aired on January 15, 2014.

For information on organizations that assist with human trafficking visit theAsian Women's Shelter or theAsian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach Center