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Fishermen Say Captain Enslaved Them at Sea

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Two Indonesian fishermen say a San Jose tuna boat captain enslaved them and forced them to work 20-hour days until they escaped at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

Sorihin Sorihin and Abdul Fatah say in a federal lawsuit that Thoai Van Nguyen, owner and captain of the Sea Queen II, forced them into involuntary servitude aboard his boat, denied them medical attention and demanded thousands of dollars if they wanted to leave before their two-year contracts expired.

The fishermen say they paid an Indonesian recruiter and a Hawaii-based agency several hundred U.S. dollars for a job onboard what they believed to be a reputable U.S. fishing vessel.

Sorihin was promised $350 a month, and Fatah $300 a month, plus bonuses of $10 per ton of fish, according to the Sept. 22 complaint.

They departed from Jakarta, Indonesia, and were boarded onto the Knowledge, a U.S. vessel. After several days at sea, they were transferred to the Sea Queen II, which was not part of their contract.

They say they were warned by other fishermen "that the Sea Queen II was known to be an undesirable vessel to work on and that the captain was strict, stingy, and mean. Despite their concerns, plaintiffs had no choice. They were on the Knowledge, at an unknown location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, without any land nearby or any capacity to call anyone for help."

The rumors were all true, the men say: Nguyen, the captain, took their passports and told them they would have to pay him $6,000 if they wanted to leave the ship.

"Nguyen verbally attacked plaintiffs, regularly yelling and cursing at them, calling them such things as 'dirty' and 'mother fucker.' Defendant Nguyen's volatile temper and yelling frightened plaintiffs, and they felt intimidated and powerless while on the Sea Queen II," according to the complaint.

Nguyen brought onboard his three adult nephews from Vietnam, who routinely woke Sorihin and Fatah by kicking their shoulders and slapping their heads. They worked a 12-hour shift followed by an 8-hour shift, with only a 30-minute break for food and three to four hours for sleep, in cold weather and rough seas, the men say.

"Although there was an indoor toilet, defendant Nguyen required crewmembers to urinate and defecate on the deck in a bucket. Plaintiffs, as Indonesians from a modest Muslim culture, were embarrassed and humiliated to perform their private functions out in open," according to the complaint.

Nguyen refused to provide them with proper medical care, which included Sorihin's crushed thumb, a slice to his face from a swordfish spine, and a finger injury from a fishing line. "Sorihin was required to continue working even while he was in severe pain from his injuries," the complaint states.

When the boat docked, Nguyen told the men they would be jailed if they set foot off the vessel and he left his nephews onboard to keep an eye on them, the fishermen say.

They fled the boat after eight months while the Sea Queen was docked in San Francisco, grabbing their confiscated passports and stealing away after Nguyen had left to visit his San Jose home and the nephews had fallen asleep drunk, according to the lawsuit.

"At the time of their escape, plaintiffs exhibited several signs of the hardship they had experienced. In addition to being sad, anxious and fearful, plaintiffs were unhealthy, emaciated, sunburned, and plaintiff Sorihin's hand was badly swollen from a prior injury," the complaint states.

The "survivors of human trafficking," who were paid far less than promised, say they are not alone. "Like plaintiffs here, these victims are then transferred to fishing vessels where they face physically grueling work, malnourishment, and abuse on a daily basis. Moreover, once the victims are shipped out to sea, they are trapped, and escape is almost impossible."

Indonesia is a lucrative target for human traffickers.

"In 2015, the Indonesian government reported an increase in Indonesia fishermen subjected to forced labor and the United States Department of State concluded that a significant number of Indonesian migrant workers face conditions of forced labor, including through debt bondage, on fishing vessels operating in international waters," the complaint states.

Thai fishing vessels also have been accused repeatedly of enslaving fishermen, including by the U.S. Department of State.

Fatah and Sorihin seek punitive damages for violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and Alien Tort Statute.

They are represented by Mana Barari with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, and Yenny Teng-Lee and Agnieszka Frysman of Cohen Milstein.

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