A man who collapsed drunk while having a drink with his friend was told he would have to work as a fisherman to pay the cost of his beer, a court heard. The man from Myanmar says he was forced to spend five years working for free after he came into the clutches of a broker in the fishing port town of Kantang in southern Thailand. Four days after the man collapsed, he said he discovered himself in the home of the broker where he was told he owed 2,000 baht ($50) for the beer and his stay. He ended up enslaved on a fishing boat and was only rescued when he and the other alleged ‘slaves’ called a helpline and asked to be saved. Nine defendants are now on trial at a court in Thailand’s southern Trang province as the proceedings began last week in a human trafficking case against nine defendants. The defendants include the broker, as well as the owner of Boonlarp Fishing Co. Ltd., whom prosecutors say is the chief of the trafficking ring. The man and his fellow ‘slaves’ only escaped when Papop Siamhan, a lawyer for the trafficking victims and project coordinator for the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) rights group said he defendants have denied all charges. “This case is important because before the police could only catch the small fish, but this is the first time they got the big fish.” Thailand has come under fire after numerous reports uncovered slavery and human trafficking in its multibillion-dollar seafood industry. The government recently amended its laws in an effort to combat human trafficking and slavery, ratcheting up penalties to life imprisonment and the death penalty in cases where their victims had died. The Issara Institute, a Bangkok-based anti-trafficking organisation, has been a key point of contact for these trafficked fishermen and said reports of abuses on fishing boats operating out of Kantang began as early as 2008. Fishermen from Myanmar on boats run by Boonlarp began calling Issara Institute’s 24-hour hotline to complain of being exploited and physically abused in May 2015. Threats against the fishermen escalated, until on October 14, 2015, one fishermen phoned the hotline and said a captain had threatened to behead him and throw his body overboard. He pleaded with the hotline operator: “I do not want to die young. Please help us!”, according to the Issara Institute. Soon after, Thai authorities from several agencies, working with the Issara Institute, went out to sea and rescued men from the Boonlarp boats. Last Friday, the Kantang case kicked off the first of 42 court hearings scheduled over five months, but the plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a motion at the second hearing on Thursday to move the case to a court in Bangkok. “We wanted to move the case because we are worried about the safety of the victims,” said Preeda Tongchumnum, another lawyer on the case, who works with the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based worker rights organisation. She added: “They have faced abuse by the broker and her husband, so they are scared, Even though they’re under the care of state authorities, if they come to Bangkok, they would feel safer. Proceedings have been adjourned until July 26, when the Supreme Court’s decision on the motion to move the case will be read.

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