In 2015, exposés revealed the exploitation of thousands of fishers aboard Thai fishing vessels in Indonesian waters,1 which in some cases had been going on for years.2 While not the first reports of forced labour at sea, nor in Southeast Asian waters, they catalysed awareness of the pervasiveness of this form of modern slavery in the fishing industry. Since then, documentaries,3 research,4 and media reports5 have continued to highlight the plight of those forced to work at sea in many parts of the world. Increased focus on modern slavery at sea has galvanised political pressure to reform the regulatory environments which allow high-risk fleets to operate with near impunity.6 It has also spurred research into innovative methods to improve monitoring of labour practices at sea and intensified demand for seafood imports free of slavery in its supply chains.7 Yet progress on protecting fishers remains slow and the gains that were made initially have since been offset by the COVID-19 pandemic.8
Forced labour in fisheries is driven by the motivation to reduce costs amid diminishing profits, as the industry tries to meet global demand for seafood.9 The overfishing that results serves to push profits further out of reach of fishing operators and perpetuates a cycle that leaves fishers vulnerable to forced labour. Fishers can be lured into situations of modern slavery by seemingly legitimate employment opportunities, but once recruited find themselves unable to leave due to threats of violence, physical confinement on- and off-shore, withholding of wages, and debts incurred through the recruitment process.10 Confiscating passports and other identity documents is another means of keeping fishers from leaving situations of forced labour by preventing them from returning home or finding another job.11 More recently, COVID-19 restrictions have also provided a convenient excuse for controlling fishers’; movements.
Protection of fishers requires regulation by governments of flag states, which bear primary responsibility for the conditions in which fishers work and live aboard fishing vessels flying their flags.12 Other states that have responsibility are port states where fishing vessels refuel and offload their catch and which are authorised to inspect vessels entering their ports, coastal states which have jurisdiction over and licence fishing in their waters, labour source states where migrant fishers are recruited and transit through, and market states that import fisheries products.13
Persistent gaps in legal protection of fishers
While globally there has been progress to improve the legal frameworks that protect fishers, coverage is inadequate. Together, two international legal instruments provide a comprehensive framework for preventing forced labour in the fishing sector — the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188) and the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.14 Only 21 countries have ratified Convention No. 188, which promotes decent working and living conditions for fishers.15 Of those, only six are among the top 25 countries responsible for producing the greatest marine capture and only two, Spain and Thailand, are among the seven countries deemed to have high-risk fisheries.16 In 2018 and 2019, the Thai government ratified Convention No. 188 and the Protocol 2014 of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930,17 becoming the first Asian government to do so.18 The 2014 Protocol, which requires measures to be taken to prevent forced labour and to identify, protect and provide remedy for victims has been more widely ratified, but still by fewer than half of the top 25 countries responsible for producing the greatest marine capture.19
Gaps in domestic labour laws reduce protections for fishers. Fifty-five percent of the 176 countries included in Walk Free’s assessment of government response do extend labour law protections to all workers regardless of sector or migration status. Most notably, labour laws in South Korea and Japan — countries with fisheries at high risk of forced labour20 — lack protection for all fishers. Specifically, in South Korea, labour laws do not extend to migrant fishers21 and, in Japan, labour laws do not extend to seafarers.22
Fishers also have limited recourse to freedom of association or collective bargaining rights. Forty-one per cent of the countries assessed do not provide these rights for all groups, while the majority of countries deny those rights to migrant workers, temporary workers, and, in some cases, maritime workers specifically. For example, in Thailand, where 90 per cent of the fishing workforce are migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia,23 migrant workers do not have legal rights to join or form their own unions, a legal gap that advocates assert has impeded progress on addressing labour exploitation among migrant fishers.24
Risks of debt bondage and confiscation of passports and other identity documents are inherent to the industry and are not adequately addressed in national laws.25 Just over one third of countries assessed mandate that recruitment fees cannot be charged to employees and less than a quarter register and monitor recruitment agencies. Further, only a quarter of countries prohibit the withholding of passports in either labour, criminal, or anti-trafficking laws. Even when laws do exist, enforcement in distant waters is a difficult task. Observers who are tasked with collecting information on fishing practices have minimal access to some fishing fleets.26 Without adequate monitoring, vessels using forced labour can operate with impunity.
Tackling the demand for seafood with opaque supply chains
Demand-side levers such as import bans have gained momentum in recent years as ways to pressure fishing nations to improve regulation of the fishing sector and to address human and labour rights abuses in the industry. The US and Canadian governments have attempted to prevent seafood produced with forced labour from reaching their markets through existing bans on the importation of goods likely mined, manufactured, or produced by forced labour.27 This passes responsibility to importers to ensure the goods they bring into the country are at low risk of being produced with forced labour or else risk financial loss as a result of the seizure of these goods.28 In the US, Withhold Release Orders (WROs) prohibit goods produced by forced labour being imported into the country under Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930.29 In 2021, WROs were used for the first time to ban the import of goods produced by an entire fishing fleet, the Chinese company Dalian Ocean Fishing Co, based on recurring reports of forced labour.30 As of September 2022, an additional four fishing vessels flagged to Fiji,31 Taiwan,32 and Vanuatu33 had active WROs against them.34 In 2020, Canada introduced measures to prevent the import of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labour under the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement Implementation Act.35 Similar legislation has been proposed in Australia36 and the EU.37 While there is insufficient data to understand the long-term efficacy of import bans in stopping forced labour in supply chains, there is some evidence of short-term improvements in corporate behaviour.38
Recent measures aimed at tackling the demand for illegal fishing also have potential benefits for human rights at sea, since illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing is associated with forced labour at sea.39 For example, reforms by the Thai government introduced in 2018 and 2019 in response to the European Commission’s 2015 “yellow card,” a warning that without improved regulations to address IUU fishing, Thai seafood exports were at risk of European Union sanctions.40 Reforms included measures to increase transparency of vessel identity, ownership, and fishing behaviours, and the introduction of a system to authorise and inspect vessels entering and leaving Thai ports.41 These were among the changes that led to the removal of the yellow card against Thailand in January 2019.42 Reports indicated that some of the measures improved the working conditions of fishers;43 however, the Thai government subsequently faced criticism for poor implementation of these reforms.44 Also endeavouring to reduce IUU fishing, World Trade Organization members in 2022 finalised the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, which prohibits subsidies to a vessel or operator engaged in IUU fishing.45 The agreement will take effect and become binding once it is formally accepted by two-thirds of WTO members46 and complaints are subject to the WTO dispute settlement process.47
Governments have also sought to stop the introduction of goods produced by modern slavery from entering their jurisdictions through legislation that encourages the private sector to identify and reduce modern slavery risks in their supply chains and operations and provide remedy where modern slavery is detected. Since 2015, 10 governments have enacted modern slavery legislation48 and an additional seven governments as well as the European Union are considering such legislation.49
“We met the captain, the ship boss, and the foreman. The boss of the ship wanted to issue a ticket: ‘If you don’t sign it, then you will be homeless here. So, you’re trapped in Peru!’ Finally, there was no more choice, even though I was sick. Due to lack of clean water, my kidneys were sick … so okay, it’s okay … I finally signed. ‘If you don’t sign then you won’t be taken home,’ they said.” Indonesian migrant fisher on experiences of intimidation at sea, 202050
COVID-19 turning back the clock on transparency and protection at sea
Restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 reduced oversight of working conditions aboard fishing vessels and increased opportunities for fishers to be exploited. Pandemic travel restrictions interrupted the rotation of crew at the beginning and end of their contracts.51 As a result, some vessels were not allowed to dock, which in turn prevented fishers from leaving these vessels and returning home.52 The inability to change crews led to extended periods on board, sometimes beyond contract end dates, putting fishers at increased risk of forced labour.53 Towards the end of 2020, some 400,000 seafarers (those involved in fishing and shipping) were reportedly stranded at sea.54 Because of the pandemic,55 several regional fisheries management organisations halted the requirement for independent observers to be onboard vessels in their areas of competence.56 While the purpose was to overcome labour shortages and reduce personnel on vessels, it also obscured labour practices, limiting opportunities for exploited fishers to be identified and removed from such situations.57
While the pandemic saw an increased risk of exploitation, research points towards technological innovations to help address the lack of oversight. Improved vessel monitoring and open-source vessel tracking data can aid observers in maintaining oversight of fishing and labour practices at sea by identifying “risky” behaviour by vessels. Such information can inform enforcement activities and allow targeting of vessels with identified risky behaviour.58 Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) are two approaches that use satellite tracking to monitor fishing vessels and their activities while at sea.59 Despite their advantages, VMS and AIS are not used systematically, even by vessels equipped with remote monitoring capabilities.60 Remote electronic monitoring, such as through the use of onboard cameras, also has the potential to help address the impact of observer shortages as well as reduce the costs associated with monitoring fishing practices and improve observer safety.61
Recommendations for governments
All governments must improve the publication and sharing of information on vessels with a history of human rights abuses, including identifying information, vessel behaviours, and details of human rights abuses. This includes developing, supporting, and implementing remote electronic monitoring programs while ensuring crew privacy is protected.63
Given the different types of state jurisdiction under international maritime law, the governments of the following states should:
Flag states: Ratify and domesticate the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 and the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188), and ensure labour laws extend to migrant workers, temporary workers, and maritime workers. These laws must criminalise withholding of passports and other identity documents and guarantee workers full rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining regardless of nationality.
Source states: Address the factors that make fishers vulnerable to modern slavery before they leave their country of origin. This includes registering and monitoring recruitment agencies and establishing and implementing laws to ensure workers do not pay fees or are not charged for services provided by recruitment agencies.
Coastal states: Use their leverage to protect fishers in their waters by monitoring vessels operating under flags of convenience and refusing access to vessels where forced labour has occurred. Require remote electronic monitoring, such as AIS, to be consistently used to access fishing licences.
Port states: Ratify and domesticate the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188). Ensure that port authorities are adequately resourced and trained to conduct inspections of vessels to assess the working and living conditions of fishers and identify indicators of forced labour. This must include survivor support services and enforcement of relevant laws to ensure perpetrators of forced labour are held to account.
Market states: Implement measures to address the demand for seafood caught with modern slavery. This includes strengthening existing modern slavery mandatory reporting laws or, preferably, introducing mandatory human rights due diligence legislation. These laws should require action to be taken by businesses to prevent, mitigate, or remediate modern slavery and have financial penalties, including civil liability for non-compliance. Additionally, governments should implement import bans of goods where there is a reasonable belief that these are made with forced labour.