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A Story of Modern Slavery


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Vannak Prum was sold 'like an animal' into modern slavery. This is his story

Vannak Prum was born the same year the Khmer Rouge fell, but his earliest childhood memories in Cambodia are of illustrations.

"As a young person I always loved being an artist, drawing," he says.

It started small: etchings of Bruce Lee in the dirt in front of his house.

He couldn't have conceived that, years later, he would use illustrations to convey a story more incredulous than any action film plot — his own.

Sold into slavery onto an illegal Thai fishing boat at the age of 26, Vannak escaped after three years, only to be sold again to a plantation farm in Malaysia.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

When he finally made it back to Cambodia, his wife didn't believe his story.

Until he started drawing.

"I drew my way back into the family home," he writes in his graphic memoir, The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea, which details his long journey of modern servitude at sea and on land.

'People were murdered, beheaded'

Vannak's wife was pregnant when he first decided to leave their village.

"I needed some money, some finance to be able for her to have the baby, check-ups in hospital,"

But while searching for temporary work on the Thai-Cambodian border, he was detained and trafficked onto a fishing boat.

"Life on the boat was very hard," he says.

"People were murdered, beheaded — all sorts of things."

Violence was not an uncommon sight, whether it was through the captain's whip or brawls with other fishermen onboard.

"The boat was small, but it became my whole world," he writes in his memoir.

During wild storms, Vannak was forced to cling to his "floating prison".

"I knew that I could die at any moment and just disappear beneath the sea without a trace," he recalls.

Jumping ship

Vannak and another man jumped and swam to the nearest shoreline when their boat finally came close enough, three years after they had first boarded.

But it was an escape that came at a price.

Instead of offering safe passage back to Cambodia, the local Malaysian police officials that eventually detained him passed him onto a palm oil plantation.

"I no longer worried about beatings, sinking, or storms," Vannak writes in his memoir.

"But I was still a prisoner there, a slave, never paid for my labour."

It took another year of hard labour, an imprisonment stint and hospitalisation before a human rights organisation, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, finally helped him return to Cambodia.

There are tens of millions of modern slaves

Vannak's story isn't an isolated one.

"There are more people in slavery now than at any other time in human history, including when 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade was happening," says Jenny Stanger from the Anti-Slavery Taskforce of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

"We've got over 40 million in slavery today across so many different industries, so many different sectors.

"And sadly the story that Vannak has put to the page and drawn is a story that is repeated in fishing around the world."

In 2018, Human Rights Watch detailed the ongoing forced labour used to sustain Thailand's fishing industry.

And it's not just fishing industries, as Minky Worden, director of Global Initiations at Human Rights Watch, writes in the introduction to Vannak's memoir.

"Construction work is yet another global industry that benefits from bonded labour," she says.

"Workers who originate from poorer nations migrate or are sent to do dangerous work, building skyscrapers and stadiums in wealthier nations."

Is your supermarket stocking slavery-derived products?

Ms Stanger says "everyone can be doing more" to examine industries where these practices can happen.

"Certainly there are huge structural issues around labour, migration, protection of human rights, access to justice, cross-border migration and trade," she says.

On a local level, she says, Australians can question the kinds of products they purchase at a supermarket.

"You can certainly look at where the products are coming from, and you can ask those companies questions about what they're doing to manage these risks," Ms Stanger says.

"Prawns have gained quite a lot of attention because of slavery that has been found in prawns.

"But any frozen fish, any fish that has come in from overseas would be potentially risky and consumers should be asking and demanding that businesses are accountable to having ethical supply chains."


Last year in Australia, Parliament passed legislation requiring businesses to take steps to address some of these concerns.

These new reporting requirements ask businesses to "identify and address their modern slavery risks, and maintain responsible and transparent supply chains".

By detailing his experiences in drawings, Vannak — as well as Jocelyn and Ben Pederick, who helped tell his story in the book — hope to bring attention to ongoing modern slavery practices.

For Vannak, life is better now, but he writes of the "anger I feel toward the people who sold me like an animal".

"My physical injuries hurt less, but my memory is a wound that will never heal," he says.


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