Order the spring issue here

Slave operation on the high seas

Ghost Fleet
MODERN SLAVERY / The Thai mafia is tricking or kidnapping men who end up as slave laborers on fishing skates. A female activist is fighting for the fishermen's life.


The word "slavery" is so far away from everyday life for most of us that it is just a slightly unusual term. But as I write this, millions of people all over the world are made into slaves who live in a kind of parallel reality we never see. Ghost Fleet takes up slavery in our modern times and is Sharon Services' first feature film.

The film won the Activist Documentary Award at the Dutch Film Festival Movies That Matter earlier this year. It is a documentary about tragedy and courage that tells the story of slaves working as fishermen in Southeast Asia, and the brave Thai activist Patima, who dares to fight for their cause.

[ntsu_youtube url = ”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cSUYlY_dhg” width = ”520 ″]


Thailand has a billion-dollar fishing industry, but after decades of overfishing, the fishing boats have to sail farther out than before, and often the fishermen must be at sea for several months in a row. Thai men are no longer interested in fishing, because wages are low and they have to be away from home for a very long time. The fishing industry has therefore had to develop another method, where they literally buy boat crews from the mafia – who trick or kidnap young men from Thailand or neighboring Burma and Vietnam.

On board the fishing boats, the men are forced to work as slaves for very long shifts. The work is dangerous, and wages for the effort can be forgotten. They have no way of leaving, and the captains do not care if they live or die – they are easily replaceable.

Ghost Fleet Directors Shannon Service, Jeffrey Waldron

The fishing boats go far out to sea, all the way to Indonesian waters. Surrounded by water on all sides, the only way to escape is when the Malaysian authorities stop the boats. When that happens, the captain is sent home and the crew ends up in jail. The idea is that the employer will pick up the crew from the prison, but it never happens. The men end up all over Thailand, scattered for all the winds, some of them hiding, others forming a new family. They work as slaves for low wages and never return home.

That is, until Patima finds them. She runs an organization in Bangkok that maps the men's whereabouts and tries to get them home. The filmmakers go on a mapping tour, and what she finds are traumatized men who have a hard time and struggle to survive. "Do you want to go home?" she asks them all, and the reaction is overwhelming.

Pain and risk

Patima's work requires strength and courage, and she goes all the way into the job – it is both inspiring and admirable. She is a good example of someone who has a "meaningful job" despite the pain, risk and threats she is exposed to. After all, courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to endure despite the fear.

Thai men are no longer interested in fishing, because wages are low and they must be
very long from home.

Ghost Fleet is more than human stories. The film tries to uncover the causes and mechanisms that make men slaves. Through reconstructions, interviews, sequences where we accompany Patima in her work, and poetic film scenes, the film is a wake-up call for the entire world. The heartbreaking tale of the broken lives and broken hearts of men is, in the big context, just an invisible detail at the end of a long supply chain – a chain that also reaches the West and our dinner plates. The film invites you to ask where the fish you eat comes from and who is behind the invisible hands that bring the fish up from the sea.

Ghost Fleet

The film's storytelling is emotionally raw, it forces the viewer to feel the urgency of engaging in this inhuman slave operation. It also leaves the viewer with a number of unanswered questions: Why aren't Thai authorities more stringent? How can we stop slavery for good? What can we do?

We are left with the recognition that a single person can make a difference. Patima's strength, devotion and courage stay with you after the movie ends. And even if you forget your faces, you will certainly not forget how you witnessed the anguish and pain of the fishermen. In a way, watching the movie will connect you with these men forever, because by the film's cast you understand that you have become a witness to their lives, everything they have done and everything they have seen.

The movie is shown on Movies from the South 2019 in Oslo in November.
Translated by Iril Kolle.


Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Nita is a freelance journalist and critic for Ny Tid.

You may also like