Despite the recognition that modern slavery occurs in fishing industries in most parts of the world,1 reliable estimates of the prevalence of modern slavery across the sector are few.2 As in other industries where the use of forced labour has been uncovered, forced labour in fisheries is, to some extent, driven by the motivation to reduce costs in a relatively low-tech, labour-intensive, and low profit industry. Fishers can be lured into situations of modern slavery by seemingly legitimate employment opportunities, but once recruited find themselves unable to leave because of the threat of violence towards themselves or family members, physical confinement on- and off-shore, the withholding of wages, and the debts they incur through the recruitment process.3 Cases of modern slavery were reported in the product sector/source country either through NGO or media reports and these reports were based on eye witness accounts or interviews with victims are subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, and inadequate food and water. The nature of offshore fishing, particularly for distant water fleets, can make escape from such situations impossible for months or years at a time.
The occurrence of labour exploitation and modern slavery in the fisheries of some countries are well documented. For example, reports of modern slavery in the Thai fishing industry have been amassed through investigative journalism and increasingly, qualitative and quantitative research. Such research has provided important insights into the entrenched nature and scale of the problem in Thailand’s fishing industry and in its region. For instance, a 2017 study by the Issara Institute and the International Justice Mission examining the experiences of Cambodian and Burmese fishers in Thailand between 2011 and 2016 found that 76 percent of migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry had been held in debt bondage and almost 38 percent had been trafficked into the Thai fishing industry in that time-frame.4 Subsequent research confirms that despite increased awareness and efforts by the Thai government to address this issue, forced labour and debt bondage within fisheries are ongoing and widespread.5 While equivalent research has not yet been undertaken in the fishing industries of other major fishing nations, it is apparent that modern slavery in commercial fisheries is not unique to Thailand. For example, there have been media reports of modern slavery and labour abuses aboard American,6 British,7 Chinese,8 and Taiwanese9 vessels in recent years.
The labour abuses seen in the fishing industry take place in a broader context that includes economic, social, and environmental factors. First, the increasing global demand for fish and the rapid growth of industrial fishing fleets, along with over-exploitation of many fish stocks, has resulted in a declining catch per effort and falling profitability.10 This has occurred alongside the destruction of small-scale, artisanal fisheries that previously provided fishing families and their villages with food and income.11 From a regulatory perspective, these results are inadvertently encouraged by government subsidies that seek to keep fishing industries operating where they would otherwise be unprofitable. All of this occurs within inadequate and inconsistent legal frameworks regulating fishing industries, and poor enforcement where such laws do exist.
What are the risk factors for modern slavery in the fishing industry?
Together with researchers from the Sea Around Us, at the University of Western Australia and the University of British Columbia, the Walk Free Foundation sought to determine a set of risk factors that are associated with modern slavery in fisheries at a global level. In the absence of local reporting, these risk factors enable us to identify likely areas of national risk.
To understand risk factors, we brought together data on fisheries and fishing management,12 with data on prevalence of modern slavery.13 The analysis14 indicates that the occurrence of modern slavery in major fish producing countries is associated with the following six risk factors:
- Fishing outside of the vessel’s national waters (officially known as Exclusive Economic Zones or EEZs) where industry may be subject to fewer regulations.
- A dependence on distant water fishing. Distant water fishing potentially increases the vulnerability of the crew to exploitation because of the remote fishing locations where vessels often remain for extended periods of time, limiting the ability for monitoring/oversight by authorities.
- High levels of vessel and fuel subsidies provided by the national government. High subsidies indicate a lack of competitiveness in a country’s fishing industry and suggest likely pressure to cut costs.
- Relatively low per capita GDP of the fishing country. This may reflect limited governmental capacity to monitor fleets and enforce fisheries standards and legislation and/or an increased likelihood that potential workers on fishing fleets are seeking work in an environment of limited economic opportunities.
- Low average value of a fishery’s catch per fisher. Low productivity fisheries have a more pressing need to reduce labour costs, as these are one of the few remaining costs that are not externally fixed.
- Large scale unreported fishing by a country’s fishing fleets. This represents weak fisheries governance and a lack of legal oversight. Illegal fishing, a major component of unreported fishing, causes billions of dollars in losses to economies around the world each year, and poorly managed fisheries are lawless markets.
These six characteristics reflect two major sets of drivers:
- National Fisheries Policy
the first three variables identified above reflect a country’s decision to build and, typically, subsidise distant water fishing fleets.
- Wealth and Institutional Capacity
the last three variables identified in the analysis are indicative of a country’s economic capacity to maintain decent working conditions and report on fishing activity.
Risk of modern slavery and impact on supply chains
Based on the six risk factors, we considered the top 20 fishing countries, which combined provide over 80 percent of the world’s fish catch.15 Slavery in these nations’ fisheries would thus profoundly impact the degree to which slave-dependent seafood exists in the global supply chain. Our analysis identified China, Japan, Russia, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand as being at high-risk of modern slavery in their respective fishing industries. These “high risk” fishing activities are characterised by a high proportion of catch taken outside their own waters at a greater distance from home waters than average, by poor governance (high levels of unreported catch), and by higher than average levels of harmful fishing subsidies. Except for Spain, instances of serious labour abuses have been documented in the fishing industries of those countries identified or are strongly suspected as high-risk.16 Combined, these seven countries generate 39 percent of the world’s catch.
A second group of interest comprises the smaller developing countries with primarily domestic or geographically local fisheries. These include Chile, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, and Vietnam. They tend to be countries that fish at home and have low levels of harmful subsidies but also have low value catches, low GDP and high levels of unreported catch. These characteristics, in some cases, make them vulnerable to having forced labour in their own national fishing industries and also to being a source for fishers who become victims of modern slavery aboard foreign-flagged vessels that fish in their waters. Combined, these nine countries generate 31 percent of the world’s catch.
The third group identified through this analysis comprises countries considered to be at low risk of modern slavery in their national fisheries. Countries in this group include Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the US and are characterised by low levels of unreported catch, high value catches, and high per capita GDP. Combined, these four countries generate 12 percent of the world’s catch.
While country of origin is an indicator of risk, in reality seafood sold to consumers is typically a mix of domestic and imported product and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. Analysis of seafood imports to Europe and the US suggests that when imported and domestically caught fish are combined in local markets, the risk of purchasing seafood contaminated with modern slavery increases approximately 8.5 times, compared with domestically caught fish.17
Figure 1Top 20 fishing countries categorised according to risk of modern slavery in their fishing industry 18
Where else should we be looking for modern slavery in the fishing industry?
While the initial analysis was undertaken on the top 20 fishing countries, it is reasonable to assume that the results can be applied to all fishing countries. While not a confirmation of actual incidence of modern slavery in fishing, given the hidden and out of sight nature of this crime, modelling can provide important insights into likely pockets of risk that may have been previously unknown. For countries assessed in the Global Slavery Index 2016, each fishing country19 has been rated according to each of the six risk factors. These ratings were transformed into a ranking of low, medium, or high vulnerability to modern slavery in the fishing industry, according to both National Fisheries Policy and Wealth and Institutional Capacity. A country’s vulnerability on these two factors together represent their overall vulnerability to modern slavery within their fishing industry Country specific results are presented in Table 1.
Table 1Fishing countries classified by National Fisheries Policy (catch outside EEZ, distant water fishing, and subsidies), and Wealth and Institutional Capacity (GDP per capita, value landed per fisher, and unreported landings)
Recommendations: Reducing modern slavery in the fishing industry
Almost all countries either catch or consume fish, and fishing plays a pivotal role in the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. It is fundamental to the long-term sustainability of this industry to address issues of social justice and labour. Ensuring safe labour conditions involves not just the country to which a vessel is registered, but also the country in whose waters fishing occurs (or where fishing occurs on the high seas, the regional fisheries management organisations), the home country of the fishers, and the countries in which fish are processed and consumed. Governments and businesses need to focus on the following combination of strategies:
1. Establish a platform that enables labour standards to be protected
Minimum international standards for working conditions should be mandatory and enforced so that migrant workers can be sure of benefiting from employment in fishing. Ratification of the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188) by all major fishing countries would be a major step towards this. Presently, only 10 countries have ratified the convention.
Government licensing of fishing rights or chartering of foreign-flagged vessels should consider known labour issues when granting access to national waters and incorporate audits of crew conditions into their general oversight and monitoring to ensure compliance with local laws and standards.
Registration of crew needs to be made mandatory for all industrial fishing vessels both in the countries fished and the country in which the vessel is registered, and verification of crew should be a standard component of the licensing of fishing vessels to operate. This needs to be backed up and monitored through inspection regimes – an approach that can be implemented both by governments but also by the businesses involved in the supply chain.
2. Recognise and respond to modern slavery in fisheries as serious and organised crime
Forced labour, slavery, and debt bondage in the fishing industry clearly fall within the recognised definition of serious crime, undertaken by organised criminal groups.20 Accordingly, there are already myriad international treaties, national laws, and specialist investigative units that have been established to ensure governments are equipped to respond to the jurisdictional and practical challenges of these complex types of crimes. Recognising modern slavery in the fisheries industry as a serious crime places responsibility for enforcement with national criminal investigative and law enforcement institutions, rather than with fishing management bodies that are typically poorly equipped to deal with such criminal activities. There is an urgent need to ensure that consideration of modern slavery is brought to bear on other initiatives targeting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) from an environmental or markets perspective. For example, it is significant that Interpol’s anti-IUU project “SCALE,” whose mission is to tackle organised crime in fishing, is now being expanded to explicitly include labour crimes.
3. Improve “net-to-table” traceability of fisheries product and labour
Seafood supply chains can be particularly complex, and the source of seafood is often poorly documented given the prevalence of transshipment21 of fish catch, seafood re-exportation, and numerous stages of processing (e.g. for canning and production of other products such as pet food). Governments and seafood traders can both play a role in improving seafood supply chain transparency, ensuring that seafood is legally caught, humanely produced, and honestly labelled.22
It is crucial that governments cooperate to regulate and oversee transshipment – a practice that sees fishing catch and/or crew transferred between vessels offshore. If abused, transshipment can be used to disguise the real source of the fishing catch (a kind of “fish laundering”) and allow illegally caught seafood to be exported and consumed around the globe.23
Legislative reforms should be introduced to improve vessel tracking, for example through mandatory adoption of ship tracking numbers and compulsory uptake of remote vessel monitoring technologies, which can assist in the identification of illegal activities such as the transshipment of catch or crew at sea.24
Strengthened legislative requirements for auditing both social and environmental elements of seafood will provide greater support for seafood traceability organisations and seafood retailers to address labour practices. Incorporating labour practices in national supply chain policy and legislation would provide consumers with confidence that their seafood is both sustainable and ethically caught.
Initiatives led by business that promote supply chain transparency inclusive of labour conditions can provide consumers with assurances that the seafood they purchase is at low-risk of modern slavery in its supply chain and motivate industry partners and competitors to improve their labour practices.
Increasing consumer awareness of the implications of their seafood choices needs to build on the work of NGOs such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium in promoting sustainable seafood, and Fair Trade International in providing ethically produced products in other industries such as coffee.
Enforcement and traceability can be bolstered through the use of technology, by reducing enforcement and detection costs, and by automating and safeguarding information flows within supply chains. This is relevant to both governments and businesses wanting to establish better governance in their fisheries labour markets. For example, identification for fishers based on facial recognition, fingerprint identification, and the use of encryption algorithms such as blockchain technology can help simplify and render tamper-proof otherwise convoluted registration processes that are critical to:
Increasing transparency around crewing arrangements in the industry (a strategy currently being piloted in the context of trafficked children25), and reducing the invisibility of crews.
Tracking the international movements of vulnerable fishers.
4. Recognise and address the link between subsidies, industrial over-capacity, and labour abuses
Subsidies support fishing that is no longer profitable by reducing capital and operating costs, thus sustaining fleet overcapacity and competition for already depleted resources. In particular, such “harmful” subsidies typically underpin long-distance fishing activity, behaviour that constitutes a major risk factor for slavery in the industry. The capping or elimination of harmful subsidies, in conjunction with reduced fleet capacity, will ease pressure on already over-exploited marine resources and reduce a key driver of labour exploitation.
In conjunction with subsidy reduction, halting the current decline in global fisheries will require reducing industrial capacity (e.g. through buy-back schemes26) and enhancing and enforcing measures that promote rebuilding of fish stocks. Concurrently promoting the development and empowerment of sustainable and well-managed small-scale fisheries, especially in coastal developing countries, will increase the availability of sustainable livelihoods in fishing. For instance, funds from harmful subsidies could be directed towards the creation and maintenance of marine protected areas in coastal waters, which will promote rebuilding of vulnerable fish stocks.
Tighter and better enforced restrictions on industrial fishing on the high seas would reduce the complexity and cost of policing fisheries-related and labour crimes in the remotest areas of the oceans. The high seas are those areas of the oceans over which no individual country has territorial jurisdiction, and oversight of fishing operations, including the monitoring of labour practices, is normally limited by both capacity and the scale of the area to be monitored. While challenging, both practically and politically, tighter restrictions on high seas fishing by international fleets would increase the share of revenue captured by developing coastal nations, contributing to a reduction in the vulnerability of the populations currently at most risk of modern slavery.