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The fishing industry provides around sixty million people around the world with employment. Regrettably, the majority of them operate in developing countries, where fishing regulations are often insufficient and lack of compliance with the fishing laws puts fishers at risk of exploitation. Modern slavery at sea is one of the main threats to maritime security and a crime that represents a severe violation of human dignity. It is rooted in illegal and unreported fishing as these activities make it likely for human rights abuses to occur. Combating modern slavery is particularly challenging as it usually happens in international waters where exploitative practices are easy to hide and victims have no way of seeking help.

Some of the highest numbers of people working in the fishing industry can be found in Southeast Asia, which is known for its diverse marine ecosystem. In fact, the seafarers who originate from the Philippines represent around a quarter of the total global number of fishers. In Indonesia, there are around 250,000 fishing crews that operate on foreign vessels. Sadly, in the region, there are not enough jobs for all those wanting to work on fishing boats. For example, in the Philippines each year there are more than twenty thousand people looking for jobs on fishing boats, but there are only around five thousand job openings.

Desperate for employment, people in Southeast Asia are often left with no choice but to seek help from unregulated manning agencies. In turn, they sign contracts that lead to them being trapped at sea and exploited for several months or longer. They often end up working on vessels different from the ones that their contracts mentioned and are sometimes trafficked to other countries. On top of that, their documents are usually taken away from them to make escape impossible.

What characterizes human rights abuses at sea?

Even though modern slavery at sea can have various manifestations, there are several characteristics of forced labor that can be observed in the majority of detected cases. The victims of the crime are usually vulnerable individuals who have very limited livelihood options and who will do anything to provide their families with a better life. Migrants are especially vulnerable to being misled and become victims of forced labor because they are often unfamiliar with local laws and language. They are recruited using deception, which primarily entails the promises of high wages and good living conditions.

Of course, soon after boarding the vessels, they realise that these promises were far from reality. Not only are the conditions onboard inhumane, but the workers have to deal with physical and sexual violence. Some modern slavery at sea survivors even reported cases of ‘murder and the unlawful disposal of corpses’, revealed the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Furthermore, forced laborers have to work excessive hours with no breaks. A typical working day is 20 hours long, but it is not uncommon for them to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To make sure the victims follow the orders and carry out all their tasks, the oppressors threaten them with the loss of wages, physical violence, or hurting their families left on the land.

The crime usually occurs outside of national waters because there the industry is subject to fewer regulations. In addition to that, the fishing missions at high seas last several months so it is impossible for the authorities to constantly monitor what happens onboard and how the crew members are being treated.

What are the wages of forced laborers?

Most of the time the justification for holding laborers captive is that they have to pay off a debt incurred during the recruitment process. Illegal manning agencies often charge excessive fees and the contracts contain hidden charges that the workers are not aware of until it is too late. These costs are deducted each month from their already extremely low salaries. A fisher in Southeast Asia should receive between USD300 – USD500 a month. In reality, however, the basic pay of forced laborers is between USD45 – USD-180, with the average monthly income after all the deductions being as low as USD50.

A common practice on ships that exploit fishers is the withholding of wages. Fishers who are affected by modern slavery at sea are paid irregularly and often have to wait several months before receiving their wages. The goal of this practice is to prevent forced workers from trying to change employers.

Not only do the fishers get paid so little they can barely afford basic necessities, but also the tasks they are charged with are perilous, and the living conditions extremely poor. Usually, they have to sleep on the ground in unhygienic rooms with many other men, and food and potable water resources are scarce so they often do not eat for several days.

Despite the abuses, however, many seamen make a conscious decision to stay on the ships and they never report the exploitation. They do it out of fear of not being able to find different employment. A lot of them are worried that if they complain, the manning agency will ‘blacklist’ them and no one else will hire them. Similarly, many fishers come from poor backgrounds and they consider having some source of income better than having none, whatever the price.

Is there a solution?

Modern slavery at sea represents horrendous human rights violations and ending the exploitation of fishers is crucial to preserving the food and economic security of millions of people around the world. Even without the additional danger of abuses, the occupation of fishers operating in high seas is amongst the most dangerous professions in the world. Unfortunately, because of the isolated nature of their occupation, it is extremely difficult to detect and put an end to their exploitation. As the International Labour Organization observed, the need for better monitoring of recruitment and placement processes of migrant workers in the fishing industry is clear. Hence, it called for more effective implementation of relevant laws and policies protecting fishers’ rights.

In the context of Southeast Asia, the main reasons why forced labor at sea thrives are the lack of cooperation between states and inadequate laws regarding maritime security and workers’ rights. Working in fishing is of transnational nature as vessels often cross multiple borders and end up in countries different from those of departure. For that reason, Southeast Asian governments need to work together to prevent and eliminate the crime by better monitoring what happens after fishing vessels leave the shore.

The scale of human rights breaches at sea is deeply concerning, especially as many cases go unreported. Despite the fact that the majority of forced laborers in the fishing industry come from the Philippines and Indonesia, the crime occurs in other parts of the world as well. For now, the problem is being overlooked, but the world is starting to pay more and more attention to various maritime threats and protecting the rights of fishers. Thus, it is possible that soon concerned states will step up their efforts to eradicate the problem of modern slavery at sea. It remains to be seen, however, whether they will succeed.

About the author:

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm operating globally and providing legal aid to forcibly displaced persons. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing communities living in low and middle-income countries.

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