Slavery at Sea

The earth’s surface consists of 70% water and carries 90% of the world’s trade, where there are about 43 million commercial fisherfolk supporting over 520 million people according to the UN. Commercial fishing operations in particular exist in an environment that is often referred to as a “jurisdictional black hole of human rights” – with no real accountability, since there is inadequate enforcement of labor standards by many states and the international regulatory system. This lapse therefore exposes fisherfolk to abuse with limited opportunity to assert their rights.

Furthermore, vulnerable migrants in search of a better future are being trafficked, exploited, abused and even murdered aboard fishing vessels. The isolated nature working at sea or on other water bodies often deprives fisherfolk (including children) of access to the protections available in landside workplaces. They are forced to work, unable to escape, under threat and abuse. In extreme cases, fisherfolk lives have been taken in summary execution and thrown overboard.

Background

Slavery has been proven to occur on fishing boats in Asia and Africa, where people are held against their will and have to endure long hours of work, sometimes not returning to dry land for several months or even years. Large numbers of men who were bought and sold are held against their will on fishing boats in countries across the world, including Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Philippines, where workers endure torturous working conditions with little or no opportunities to escape.

Similarly, there is evidence that, children are trafficked to Lake Volta in Ghana to work with fishermen at the expense of their education and under hazardous working conditions. In 2013, the UN International Labour Organization and Government of Ghana estimated that over 49,000 children are working on Lake Volta. Out of this number, over 21,000 children are deemed to be working in hazardous conditions, harmful to their health, morals and or their development.

There have been some interventions such as rescue and rehabilitation in this area by a number of organizations, yet, it has not been enough to solve the problem.


Throughout the world there are many fishing fleets that have highly exploitative, slave-like conditions. Up until now, very little has been done to address these conditions anywhere.


The term “Slavery at Sea” is a broad term within the context of modern slavery in the fishing industry. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO), the fishing industry includes recreational, subsistence, commercial fishing, and the harvesting, processing, and marketing sectors. The fishing industry also extends to aquaculture for global production of aquatic organisms or other farmed marine creatures.

“Slavery at Sea” is an umbrella theme under which we run a number of specific campaign interventions around exploitation in the fishing industry. The slavery at sea theme will bring attention to labor abuses against both children and adults in the global fishing industry.

What have we done?

We have launched several actions to help secure improvements to the lives of fisherfolk.

Child slavery on Lake Volta

The Turn Back Human Trafficking was launched as an initiative with our partner Challenging Heights in collaboration with the Police Administration in Ghana (with support from the Embassy of France) to engage the general public on child trafficking to Lake Volta, and to secure their commitment by signing a pledge. The pledge indicates a personal commitment for the public, community leaders, drivers and the police to be vigilant and report their concerns or suspicions about human trafficking to the authorities.

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New Zealand legislation

The appalling story of exploitation aboard a fishing vessel in New Zealand, provided evidence that hundreds are working in slavery-like conditions at sea, threatened, abused and forced to work 30-hour shifts. The campaign ask was for the government of New Zealand to show its strong support for a proposed new law which would help end modern slavery at sea. The campaign has been won.

View Field Report

Thai Seafood

A six-month investigation by The Guardian has found that the Thai fishing industry is “built on slavery”, with trafficked workers enduring 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings, all to support the flow of cheap farmed prawns and shrimp sold around the world. The four big global retailers – Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco were all named as customers of a seafood supplier in Thailand with proven links to slavery.

The campaign sought to encourage these retailers to stand up to their seafood suppliers in Thailand, so that estimated 300,000 people working in Thailand’s fishing industry are treated as human beings, not slaves. Tesco responded positively by committing to sourcing slavery-free seafood.

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Protect Pa-Aling Fishermen from Modern Slavery – Philippines

Pa-aling is a very dangerous deep-sea fishing method where fishermen dive 100 feet into the ocean to drive fish out of coral reefs into a net laid out on the ocean floor, which is sealed and reeled to the surface.  Unfortunately, fisherfolk in the industry are not protected. Our campaign targets the Department of Labor and Employment to release official specific guidelines on the hiring, compensation, and protection of pa-aling fisherfolk.

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Indonesia fisherfolk

We sought to ensure legislative protection for the over 200,000 Indonesians working in fishing all across the world, who were at risk of modern slavery due to inadequate laws and protections at home and abroad.

The campaign targeted the president of Indonesia to ratify International Labour Organization Convention No.188 to help protect thousands of Indonesian citizens from modern slavery at sea.