Modern Slavery in the Fishing industry

The fishing industry is one where modern slavery has remained pervasive despite increasing public awareness and advocacy. Thailand, whose seafood industry is worth $7.3bn a year, has been the object of scathing criticism due to widespread evidence confirming the presence of human trafficking, forced labour and human rights abuses in fishing boats across the country.

Ninety percent of the Thai fishing workforce is made up by migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia, often trafficked across the border and lured to fishing vessels under false promises of regulated work. They are sold by brokers for as little as £450, committing themselves to harsh and often inhumane work conditions for an indefinite length of time, trapped in the vicious circle of trafficking and re-trafficking. While at sea, severe instances of abuse and even murder go unreported and unpunished, an issue compounded by complex questions of country jurisdiction and poor licensing and registration of many vessels, whose entire activity and crew is swept under the radar.

Unsurprisingly, the extent of the modern slavery issue in the fishing sector in Thailand has been the subject of international backlash. In April 2015, the EU issued a “yellow card”, threatening a ban on seafood imports unless Thailand improved its record of illegal fishing and labour abuse. Standing to lose up to 1bn in revenue per year, the Thai government was quick to adopt an illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing enforcement act in line with EU regulations, labour laws preventing minors from working on boats and in seafood processing factories and a command centre to combat illegal fishing (CCCIF) which has now signed several memoranda of understanding with key companies. These efforts were rewarded by an upgrade in the 2016 US Trafficking in Persons Report from Tier 3 (the lowest ranking) to Tier 2, and a jump of 21 places in Verisk Maplecroft’s 2017 Modern Slavery Index.

Despite these improvements, in March of this year the International Labour Organisation held in a formal yet highly unusual ruling that Thailand was still failing to protect migrant workers, who were unpaid and abused. The ruling, informed by interviews of Thai migrant workers, showed that domestic authorities are far from achieving compliance with international labour standards. However, local efforts to stamp out modern slavery in an industry 90% of which is destined for exports are unlikely to ever be sufficient. The US, UK and EU, prime buyers of Thai seafood, have a key role in using access to their markets as leverage to achieve the elimination of human trafficking and modern slavery – a strategy which has clearly worked in the past.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *