In recent years, Environmental Justice Foundation’s reports, along with those by journalists and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have repeatedly shown how overfishing and illegal fishing have substantially increased the risks of serious human rights abuses.
The last report “Blood and water. Human rights abuse in the global seafood industry”, sets out the linkages between rapidly declining fish stocks in the world’s oceans, in part caused by the widespread practice of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and serious human rights abuses in the global seafood industry.
Modern slavery remains extremely prevalent, with 40.3 million men, women, and children estimated to be enslaved globally across all industries.
Fishers, by the nature of their work, operate in an isolated environment, making them more vulnerable and in need of better protections.
Furthermore, practices such as transshipment at sea and the use of flags of convenience further exacerbate these risks, making it more difficult to identify and track possible cases of illegal fishing or labour abuses and less likely that governments can take enforcement action.
Transshipment involves the transfer of catch from fishing vessels to reefer vessels or ‘mother ships’ which then transport fish back to port. Reefers or other support vessels also resupply fishing boats with fuel and food, allowing the vessels to stay at sea almost indefinitely, thereby reducing fuel costs. Vessels come to port less often, reducing the chance for inspections. In more extreme cases, transshipments can also be used to rotate crews between fishing vessels without going back to shore, trapping trafficked crew on board. Consequently, fishers may spend months or even years isolated at sea, without access to reporting mechanisms to authorities or any prospect of law enforcement intervention.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has identified 33 countries that are classified as Flags of convenience (FoC) countries. In July 2018, the TryggMat Foundation’s combined IUU vessel list contained data on 305 fishing vessels used for IUU fishing and fisheries crime. While the analysis of the dataset showed that close to half of these vessels were stateless or had an unknown flag state, the data also showed that over a third of vessels with known flags were operating under a FoC, demonstrating the link between IUU fishing and FoCs. Cambodia was until recently an infamous FoC. Since 2016, the Cambodian shipping register has changed its policy on foreign-owned vessels and has begun stripping them of their Cambodian flags. Cambodian vessels will now need to be registered in Cambodia if they want to receive a flag.
Finally, these practices also facilitate other illegal activities such as drug or weapons trafficking, and can be associated with the use of tax havens.
Who are fisheries workers?
For the seafood industry, media stories, come to the fore in 2014, about controversial ‘slave labor’ practices of migrants working in Thailand’s off-shore fisheries, exposed an increasing reliance on migrant workers who are often less than free, poorly paid, and abused. Among researchers, these controversies have highlighted how little systematic research has been done on hired labour in fisheries, especially in the global South. Although most workers engaged in fisheries today are still small-scale and, the industrialisation of fisheries has required the increasing employment of hired workers.
Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to incidences of forced labour because they often experience communication and cultural barriers which increase the likelihood of abuse. According to a 2013 survey by the ILO of 596 workers in the Thai fishing industry, 61.7% of workers felt that their rights had not been violated; however, a further inspection of the conditions of their fishing vessels showed otherwise.
In Thailand, brokers have historically not required formal licenses and under certain recruitment channels it is still not mandatory for employers to use licensed brokers. This informal system allows unscrupulous individuals to exploit recently arrived migrant workers. A 2018 report by the ILO in Thailand found that 53% of 434 workers in the Thai fishing and seafood industries reported some form of wage deduction in the form of fees charged for transport, ‘pink card’ identity documents, or lodging and sustenance.
Even in cases where migrants are registered, employers who invested in paying for the registration may hold onto such papers for a time period to ensure a worker does not leave his boat find work elsewhere. Many workers are further tied to specific boats because they are paid on a profit sharing basis after a fixed period that ranges from 12 to 30 months. In addition, the shift away from local workers who might be known to the captain, to highly marginalised migrant workers, has made it easier for captain to cheat workers.
Update legislation to address gaps in workers’ rights
Weak fisheries legislation and poor enforcement around the world is allowing illegal operators to flourish. Legislative reforms alongside vastly improved enforcement, trans-boundary collaboration and the application of effective deterrent penalties are urgently needed. This will help to prevent illegal and unsustainable fishing; the use of damaging fishing gear and practices; human trafficking and use and abuse of illegal, unregistered and vulnerable workers. International agreements such as the recently enacted ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188) and UNFAO’s PSMA as well as the not-yet-enacted Cape Town Agreement are designed to eliminate capacity gaps and increase inspection. All three still must be rapidly adopted and ratified by governments worldwide.
Read the report “Blood and water. Human rights abuse in the global seafood industry”, here