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How the Seafood Industry Got Caught Up in Slavery

Migrant workers endure horrific conditions to catch seafood.

This post was co-written by Mellissa Withers and Supipa Buranasiri.

Imagine learning of a job that pays twice the amount of your current job, only to take it up and be shipped to open waters on an illegal vessel, fed expired canned foods, and forced to fish for days without pay while enduring constant physical and mental abuse. This is the reality for many of the migrant workers that are trapped in the illegal seafood industry.

Thousands of miles away from your local supermarket, migrant workers endure horrific conditions to catch seafood. Human trafficking also occurs on the docks, where workers are forced into bonded labor to peel shrimp or process the fish that have been caught.

The global illegal seafood market is worth about $151 billion per year, making it the sixth-largest criminal enterprise in the world in terms of revenue. While major media outlets and human rights organizations have exposed the seafood industry for their decades-long human rights violations, human trafficking within the seafood industry persists.

Although preventing this may seem out of our control, as consumers, we have the power to shift demands through educated purchases and can help to protect fishers from abuse, shaping the future of the seafood industry.

There is a link between human trafficking and the illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing industry because those who are already engaged in illegal activities may be more willing to disobey labor laws and to engage in criminal activity, including human trafficking. They may be desperate for workers to man their fishing vessels, which means they may be more willing to exploit workers. This illegal industry produces between 11 and 26 million tons of seafood each year. Falling revenue (primarily due to declining fish stocks) and the growing demand for cheap seafood have driven down profits in many fisheries, which in turn, has led to increased abuse of crews. Labor costs can account for up to 60% of total expenses for fishing vessels, so owners often recruit from the large labor pools in poor countries in order to drive down costs and to increase their competitive advantage. They often use unscrupulous agencies or brokers who further exploit vulnerable, impoverished people looking for work. The workers are referred to the agencies through newspapers or friends under the illusion that they would be paid well above what they could make at home.

Those who work in the IUU fishing industry are vulnerable to human trafficking because they are often migrants with little recourse to enforce labor laws and often do not have written contracts. Sometimes, they are required to sign a contract in a language that they don’t understand, confirming no overtime pay, no sick leave, long working hours, and that wages would be distributed at the end of the years-long commitment. On top of that, they must also sign a promissory note that forces them to pay a large fee if they intend to leave the job before the contract ends – quickly trapping them. By the nature of their work, these workers operate in an isolated environment, making them more vulnerable to unsafe working conditions, physical abuse, and human trafficking.

Although human trafficking in the seafood industry is concentrated in South-East Asia, with Thailand at the center, the problem exists in many other places, such as South Korea, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Papua New Guinea, Spain, and even Hawaii. Large seafood companies may source their products from illegal suppliers and sell them to well-known US-based retailers.

Human trafficking in the seafood industry is plagued by financial exploitation, labour exploitation, psychological manipulation, and physical abuse. The disturbing New York Times article, “Sea Slaves,” explains how migrant workers were typically fed with merely one bowl of rice per day, forced to work during storms without protective gear, and abused for the smallest mistakes – such as accidentally placing a mackerel in a bucket designated for herrings. The inhumane conditions have prompted some workers to throw themselves overboard, while those who manage to escape may endure decades of detrimental physical and mental health conditions related to this trauma.

This is not just a human rights issue; it is also a development issue reflecting economic inequality and the failure of governments to provide quality education and consistent employment. The lack of economic opportunities in the country of origin pushes workers to seek better paying jobs abroad, putting them at an increased risk for exploitation. For example, migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia make up Thailand’s annual shortage of 50,000 fishers. The economic roots of the problem shed light on the need for a holistic solution in which global regulations are tightened and origin countries examine how to improve conditions at home.

Luckily, recent efforts have made a difference, in part sparked by the Pulitzer Prize-winning story by the Associated Press titled “Seafood from Slaves,” which drew international attention to the issue. Thailand increased funding for migrant labor management and became the first Asian country to ratify the International Labour Organization Working in Fishing Convention. As a result, the U.S. Department of State upgraded Thailand from a Tier 3 to Tier 2 ranking in its 2018 Trafficking In Persons report. While the upgrade reflects efforts of the Thai government and corporations to eliminate human trafficking in the seafood industry, there is more work to be done.

In an industry that has fed on corruption, human rights abuse, and uneven power dynamics, there is a need for both top-down and bottom-up solutions in the form of market-based strategies. Consumers have the ability to enforce pressure on governments and corporations to adopt good corporate behavior by raising awareness and steering demand through informed purchases. In an effort to empower consumers, research-driven programs have been designed to inform customers of where their products are from and many retailers have vowed to only sell ethically sourced products.

Below is a list of resources to help you make educated purchases.

  • Seafood Slavery Risk Tool: A tool that rates the probability that forced labor, human trafficking, or hazardous child labor is taking place on fishing boats in a fishery. The tool rates each fishery as critical, high, moderate, or low risk to guide consumers and businesses on sustainable and ethical sourcing methods.
  • Responsible Sourcing Tool: The Responsible Sourcing Tool provides data on global production and trade flows, reports of human trafficking with an emphasis on forced and/or child labor associated with global commodities.
  • Global Fishing Watch: In an effort to advance ocean sustainability and stewardship, the Global Fishing Watch aims to improve transparency of the fishing industry by providing free data and near real-time trafficking of commercial fishing activity.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch: The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch helps consumers choose seafood that’s fished or farmed sustainably.
  • Purchase Fair Trade Certified Products: The certification ensures that the workers who produced the product received a fair deal for their hard work. Efforts can also be made to purchase seafood that has been approved by the Marine Stewardship Council which enforces strict requirements to ensure legal fishing.
  • The Environmental Justice Foundation: They have produced several short videos worth watching.

There is no quick fix to eliminate human trafficking in the seafood industry, but everyone can take actions that can make a big difference. We can all continue to push corporations to adopt more ethical sourcing methods and work together to untangle the ties between seafood and slavery.

Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program.

Supipa Buranasiri is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California majoring in global health.

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