Slavery in our seafood
Updated: May 17
Is reform of fisheries and labour laws enough?
Putting a stop to the trafficking of people into slavery on fishing vessels requires several factors to ensure success, writes Douglas Macfarlane.
Over the last decade, a familiar story has emerged in the seafood industry the world over. Vulnerable persons, mostly migrants, are deceived into debt-bondage and, under the threat of violence or denunciation to migration officials, forced to work on fishing vessels and in fish processing plants. The response to this trafficking of people into slavery is overwhelmingly a push to reform fisheries and labour laws, but is this enough?
The short answer is no – but to understand what else is needed, we also need to understand what might motivate an industry to reform. The answer, as two contrasting recent examples from New Zealand and Thailand have demonstrated, depends on context.
In New Zealand, migrants were trafficked onto foreign-flagged vessels to fish low-valued species within New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). These fisheries were only economically viable through the use of slave labour. Exploitation flourished under the complex jurisdictional barriers that hampered authorities from enforcing basic working conditions at sea.
Despite a resistance to reform that was unashamedly driven by profit, a law was passed to re-flag all foreign charter vessels fishing its EEZ, which took effect on 1 May 2016. The motivation to support the law was the risk that failing to reform would damage NZ’s export reputation.
The likelihood that the reform will succeed depends on several factors. New Zealand has considerable capacity for law enforcement, a proven track record of prosecuting fisheries offenders and a relatively small number of foreign-flagged vessels engaged in exploitation. Add to this, NZ’s comprehensive labour laws, the protection it offers to victims of exploitation and a free media able to report instances of slavery.
Given the motivation and context, it’s likely this legal reform will significantly reduce instances of exploitation. Indeed, as a result of the reform, nine vessels have chosen not to fish NZ’s EEZ, which speaks volumes.
Unfortunately, many of these vessels will continue to exploit workers elsewhere and the fish that they produce will be imported to countries where such practices are illegal. This is the reality that only the EU, the UK, California, and soon the wider US, are beginning to confront.
In Thailand, the financial incentive has been to maintain the status quo. Or at least that was the case until April 2015, when the EU issued a ‘yellow card’, warning Thailand to reform its exploitative fishing industry within six months or face an import ban, worth an estimated $20 THB billion.
This has prompted the most significant legal reforms to Thailand’s fishing industry. Despite this, the reforms have had little impact on the reality of exploitation. For now, it appears that the EU will extend the warning period to encourage Thailand to make further progress.
To understand the failures, you need to consider the context. In Thailand, unlike New Zealand, fisheries enforcement has historically been weak, methods to identify victims of trafficking are ad-hoc and ineffective (largely due to the absence of translators and a failure to ensure the safety of potential victims), and its fishing fleet is enormous, comprised of mostly small vessels heavily reliant on migrant workers (over 80 per cent).
Added to this is Thailand’s considerable failure to provide protection for witnesses to human trafficking, a shortcoming that undermines all its efforts to punish traffickers. This situation was epitomised when Thailand’s lead investigator sought asylum in Australia after uncovering links between corrupt officials and human trafficking.
Equally discouraging is the use of defamation charges to suppress media reports linking corruption to human trafficking. On top of this, there are a lack of broader legal rights for migrants, meaning they remain vulnerable to exploitation and are generally unwilling to report abuses. Finally, there is also the issue of the government’s own transgressions towards the treatment of migrants.
Despite the considerable incentive to reform, Thailand’s actions appear to be motivated only as far as hoping that the pressure will disappear.
Ultimately though, it’s no longer possible to pretend that the liability for the exploitation occurring within a supply chain starts and stops with the source country. Countries who continue to feign ignorance prop-up unsustainable industries, allow others to profit from slavery, and ultimately damage their own industries that must compete with “cheap” imports.
The EU has shown that tremendous progress can be achieved where all other tactics have failed. However, the EU only makes up some 20 per cent of Thailand’s fishing exports, and by acting unilaterally – other countries (like, Japan, Canada and Australia) will continue to prop-up exploitative industries and import goods tainted with slavery.
And even the EU warning system has much room for improvement. For one, the system threatens an entire nation with a blanket ban and therefore provides no means, nor motivation, for good operators to improve their practices.
A better option might be to offer a mechanism for operators to certify that they employ sustainable fishing practices and are committed to labour protections.
This would provide the added financial motivation of being able to trade, while your competitors are banned.
Providing the means for good operators to be more transparent would involve paying a premium for effective compliance, as certifications cannot be effective without ongoing enforcement and independent verification. Nevertheless, given the clandestine nature of fishing, enforcement is indispensable.
Compared to the cost of corruption and environmental devastation, enforcement can be relatively simple and cheap. Especially efficient are the enforcement of closed seasons and marine parks, and the use of technologies such as vessel monitoring systems (VMS). Other technological advances are also being developed to ensure fair labour standards, through certifications, mobile payment schemes and smartphone apps that provide effective complaints processes.
Ultimately, only as importing nations take responsibility for their supply chains will we see dramatic improvements in the fishing industry. Far from simply being a benevolent exercise this will also address overcapacity, allow local industries to compete, and increase the efficiency of the global fishing fleet.
This piece was published on the Policy Forum,
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