‘Seafood from Slaves’ reporter settles in Afton: 2016 Pulitzer winner spent years covering Southeast Asia
AFTON -- When she's not traveling the world investigating stories for the Associated Press, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Robin McDowell lives in Afton.She bought a house there in 2005 to have a home base near her sister.McDowell and three othe...
AFTON - When she’s not traveling the world investigating stories for the Associated Press, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Robin McDowell lives in Afton.
She bought a house there in 2005 to have a home base near her sister.
McDowell and three other AP reporters won a Pulitzer this year for their series of stories on the use of slaves in Thailand’s commercial fishing industry. Their investigation traced the seafood to supermarkets and pet-food providers throughout the U.S. and led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves.
McDowell, 50, was working in the AP’s bureau in Myanmar, also known as Burma, when she and Esther Htusan, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza began working on “Seafood from Slaves.”
That slaves were working in the seafood industry in Southeast Asia was well known among reporters, human rights advocates and government officials, McDowell said. “It was an open secret, basically,” she said. “Everybody knew migrant men were being abused on these Thai boats.”
When the number of reports of abuse began multiplying, McDowell and colleagues brainstormed ways to pitch it to their editors. “We were trying to figure out how to write it in a way that sparked the outrage that we thought was missing,” she said. “My colleague was, like, ‘OK, let’s link it to the American dinner table.’ ”
McDowell ended up on the Indonesian island of Benjina.
“We had no idea what we would find,” she said. “We thought we might find an official fishing factory. We didn’t really know. We just suspected something was going on there.”
“The AP journalists accomplished two goals that had eluded others,” AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll wrote in her nomination letter to the Pulitzer judges. “They found captive slaves, countering industry claims that the problems had been solved. And they followed specific loads of slave-caught seafood to supply chains of particular brands and stores, so companies no longer could deny culpability.”
Kicked, beaten, held in cages
The men the AP interviewed on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar and had been brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish.
“They said the captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off,” McDowell and her colleagues wrote. “Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing, as they hauled in heavy nets with squid, shrimp, snapper, grouper and other fish.”
Some men were held captive in cages on the island, McDowell said.
“If the captain didn’t like them, he would put them in cages when they got to shore and make them wait for a different boat, so they wouldn’t run away,” she said.
The fishermen pleaded with the journalists to help them.
“I’d never seen that level of desperation before,” McDowell said. “People were chasing us down dirt paths, sticking papers at us, saying ‘Please, this is my mom. Tell her we’re alive.’ They hadn’t been in touch with family for 10 to 20 years.”
McDowell and Htusan were chased by company officials threatening to ram them with their speedboat after fishermen aboard a trawler begged for their help.
Before publishing the first story in March 2015, AP sought help from the International Organization for Migration to rescue the men from Benjina who were photographed and quoted.
“That is one of the things we’re most proud of,” McDowell said. “We just knew it would not be safe to be there after telling the whole world that these people had been abusing you.”
McDowell returned to Benjina when Indonesian authorities went to the island to investigate about a week after the first story was published.
“Government officials thought there were 20 to 30 guys who were hiding, but there were more than 300,” she said. “As soon as they said that the men were (being rescued), word started to spread, and guys who were hiding behind the factory, in the forest, on the hills, on the boats, started running to get registered - pulling their belongings and stuffing them into bags.”
“Seafood from Slaves” also won the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting and the gold Barlett and Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism. The series is the subject of a new AP book, “Fishermen Slaves: Human Trafficking and the Seafood We Eat.”
McDowell, who has a bachelor’s degree in English and political science from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, is working as an investigative reporter for the AP. She covers the Midwest now.
She previously worked for the AP in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Denver and New York. She has also served as the U.S. correspondent for Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun and helped start the Cambodian newspaper Cambodia Daily.
In 2012, McDowell took a break, and she and her son, Ty Hawkins, spent a year living in Afton. She returned there in December and plans to stay until Ty, now 14, graduates from high school. The pair are living with McDowell’s sister, Erin McDowell. Robin McDowell owns the house next door, which is currently being rented.
“When I quit for a year in 2012, I was really looking for a place to put down roots for my son,” she said. “I knew we would be coming back eventually, and I wanted him to have something that felt like home because we were traveling so much.”
McDowell will speak about her Pulitzer Prize-winning series at a fundraiser Tuesday for the Afton Historical Museum.
“I hope that people don’t think that the problem is solved now that 2,000 guys are freed,” she said. “This was supposed to be an example. It’s not like once that story came out, they cut ties with that particular supplier, and everything is fixed. No, there are thousands of these guys out there. We just found the one company that linked it to other companies and eventually fanned out all over America, but it’s just an example.”
McDowell said she and her colleagues weren’t able to write a solution story for the series because “we couldn’t really find the solution.”
“It’s not like you can say ‘Don’t buy Thai seafood’ because Thailand, again, is just another example,” she said. “It’s the one that we chose because we happened to know about those abuses, but there are Chinese boats, Taiwanese boats, Korean boats, Vietnamese boats …”
She recommends that people ask shopkeepers the source of their seafood.
“Make them aware that you are worried about it, and that it’s an issue,” she said. “You could be especially suspicious of Thai seafood just because we were able to prove that, and then ask: ‘How can you guarantee that this is not caught by slaves?’ They’ll probably not be able to answer, or they’ll come up with something, but at least they’ll know that people care about it, and that’s a start.”
This report includes information from the Associated Press.
If you go
Associated Press reporter Robin McDowell, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for “Seafood from Slaves,” will be the featured speaker at a fundraiser for the Afton Historical Museum on Tuesday. McDowell, who lives in Afton, will speak at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door; seating is limited. For more information, email email@example.com or call 651-436-3500.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.