Slavery at Sea

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The earth’s surface consists of 70 percent water, and its oceans—where there are about 43 million commercial fisherfolk supporting over 520 million people—carry 90 percent of the world’s trade. Commercial fishing operations, in particular, exist in an environment that is often referred to as a “jurisdictional black hole of human rights”—in other words, one with no real accountability, since there is inadequate enforcement of labor standards by many states and the international regulatory system. This is facilitated, in part, by the inherent remote and isolated workplace at sea, which exposes fisherfolk to abuse and limits their ability to assert their rights.

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 and under threat and abuse. In extreme cases, fisherfolk have been summarily executed 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 are held against their will on fishing boats in countries across the world, including Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Philippines, enduring torturous working conditions with little or no opportunity 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 International Labour Organization and the 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 that are harmful to their health and development.

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

Matthew Friedman, former Regional Project Manager at the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, attests:


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.


According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the fishing industry includes recreational, subsistence, and commercial fishing, along with the harvesting, processing, and marketing sectors. The fishing industry also extends to aquaculture for global production of aquatic organisms or other farmed marine creatures.

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.

Take action now

Slavery on board Taiwanese fishing vessels

We called on the U.S. Department of Labor to include fish caught on Taiwanese fishing vessels in their list of goods produced with forced labor. Their policy excluded distant-water fishing nations that use forced labor to catch seafood on the high seas from its biennial List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor (“List of Goods”). We joined a coalition of 24 organizations led by Greenpeace urging the U.S. government to reverse its policy considering the extent of forced labor risks on Taiwanese longline fishing vessels. The recruitment system begins in Indonesia and traps migrant fishers in horrific conditions in remote corners of the world. In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor reversed its policy and included fish from Taiwan in its List of Goods produced with a high risk of forced labor.

Read the letter we sent

New Zealand legislation

The appalling story of exploitation aboard a foreign chartered fishing vessel in international waters off New Zealand proved how escaping the eyes of authorities enables exploitation and slavery-like conditions at sea. The campaign resulted in the government of New Zealand passing a new law requiring foreign chartered vessels to fly the New Zealand flag and so become subject to their labor regulations and inspections, offering new protections for fisherfolk on board these vessels.

Read our campaign 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. Four of the biggest 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 the estimated 300,000 people working in the country’s fishing industry are treated as human beings, not slaves. Tesco responded positively by committing to sourcing slavery-free seafood.

Read our campaign report

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 specific guidelines on the hiring, compensation, and protection of pa-aling fisherfolk.

Take action now

Indonesia fisherfolk

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