Slavery is another blot on industrial tuna fisheries – this time it’s not the EU

One clear day in 1987 I decided to go with my Seychelles Fishing Authority (SFA) colleague Felix on board an Asian long liner anchored a ways off Port Victoria. I was the new Assistant Director of Research and I wanted to understand all the intricacies of fisheries. Felix, a tough looking guy in charge of enforcement, warned me about the crewmen – we had been told that the long liners were manned by convicts and criminals serving time at sea. Today, with far more information and knowledge, I realise the worn-looking men were probably forced labour.

It’s been known for some years that large parts of the tuna fishing industry are built on the back of forced labour, or to call a spade a spade, slavery. The US has recently added fish caught by Chinese and Taiwanese distant-water fishing fleets to its annual “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor”. The majority of the crews on the Chinese fleets board are migrant workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, who are particularly vulnerable to forced labor and who are sometimes recruited by agencies that deceive workers with false claims, says the US State Dept. The report is the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.

Several recent investigations by Greenpeace and others have identified the practices of Taiwanese distant-water longliner vessels as particularly problematic, says Monica Evans. Forced labor and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing continue to occur within major tuna supply chains, despite efforts by governments to stamp them out.

Andy Shen, Senior Oceans Adviser at Greenpeace USA has said, the US’ decision to put Taiwanese-caught tuna on the List officially confirms that the Taiwanese fishing industry runs off slaves. Major American retailers such as Walmart and Costco, and national tuna brands such as Bumble Bee, source from the Taiwanese fleet and must assure consumers they are not profiting from and perpetuating modern slavery on the high seas.”

Taiwan is the second-largest fishing entity on the high seas, with over 1,000 Taiwanese-flagged and over 200 Taiwanese-owned, foreign-flagged DWF vessels. It is the largest longline tuna exporter in the world. Nearly six years after articles have emerged about modern slavery in seafood supply chains progress has been slow, policies have been largely disappointing, and good practice continues to be the exception rather than the norm. Transparency remains elusive as most companies have yet to take the step beyond policies and processes to reporting on negative impacts and their remediation, says Andy Chen.

Contributing risk factors of human trafficking and forced labour onboard fishing boats (kiEJF)

The US report is not the first to flag this problem. Last year, a report published by the Businesses & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), an international corporate watchdog, noted that only 4 of the world’s 35 largest tuna retail brands said they conducted due diligence with the specific aim of uncovering modern slavery in their Pacific supply chains. Of the 35 brands surveyed by BHRRC, 20 percent claimed to have mapped out their supply chains in full, and only 8% said that they required their subcontractors to enforce their modern anti-slavery policies throughout their supply chains.

Slavery is allowing fishing fleets to go further and to be at sea for longer periods than normal, good practice labour policies and management would permit. This also allows IUU fishing to occur because the crew cannot divulge what is happening.  Shannon Service, the co-director of Ghost Fleet, a multiple-award winning documentary about slavery in the Thai fishing industry says, “Slavery is the Achilles’ heel of overfishing — these boats went further and further from shore and they needed a labour force. So human traffickers stepped into the gap and started selling people.”

But new tech is bringing optimism that men being held captive on large fishing vessels may be identified. A report from Liberty Shares demonstrates how trends in satellite data may indicate a vessel is fishing illegally and harboring slaves. Those involved in the use of technology are confident that globally tracking ships and using machine learning to identify suspicious behaviour by vessels can help prevent and crackdown on slavery and other illegal activities at sea.

In response to the growing concern in the fishing sector, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has developed a 5 year, holistic, multifaceted and integrated programme “Global Action Programme against forced labour and trafficking of fishers at sea” (GAPfish). The ILO has warned that forced labour in the fisheries sector is frequently linked to other forms of transnational organized fisheries crime. The term “fisheries crime” has recently appeared in the context of emerging practical responses against offences committed within the fisheries sector, which puts these practices fairly and squarely on the radar of the UN and many international and intergovernmental organisations.

But Francisco Blaha, an expert I correspond with, warns that the labour failures on fishing boats are governance failures. The reasons are complicated and multidimensional, so one has to be wary of simple solutions. Fixes do require a toolbox approach, not just a hammer, Blaha says. The toolbox includes safe and decent labour conditions based on ILO standards as part of the licensing conditions, crew change (who, when, where get in and out of a vessel) then stop (or tightly control transhipment at sea). Then implement Port State Measures, flag state responsibility standards, and the more diplomatic tools, he says.

The sad and awful truth of forced labour in tuna fisheries has finally emerged into the limelight. The US List is another big step forward towards possible solutions, especially when it concerns public demand. Market forces may play a big role. Customers increasingly want assurances that their seafood is sustainably and legally sourced and that people have not been harmed or treated unfairly at any point in the catching or processing of the seafood they buy. Stakeholders throughout the seafood industry can advocate for effective fishery laws that bring a clear result for those who do not follow the rules: unpurchased fish and lost profits.

I know that awareness of this problem has been raised with people in government departments and private sector in Seychelles, people who wouldn’t normally be thinking about slavery on fishing vessels. This makes me optimistic that when government officials board Asian longliners they would be viewing the crew through a different lens than I did back in the ’80s.


Author: Dr. Nirmal Shah

Nirmal is a well-known and a passionate personality in the Seychelles environmental and sustainability scene having an encyclopedic knowledge of Seychelles biodiversity as well as a wealth of experience in environment management. He has worked in senior positions in the parastatal, government, private and NGO sectors and consulted for international organizations such as the World Bank, IUCN, UNEP, Sida and UNESCO. He has appeared on CNN, BBC, Radio France, PBS, NBC, ABC, SABC and others

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: