Saving workers from the hell of the fishing industry in Asia

Saving workers from the hell of the fishing industry in Asia

Fishers unload fish at a port in Ranong Province, Thailand, 2018. According to the ILO, more than 90 per cent of the workers on Thai fishing boats are migrants from Cambodia and Burma who spend long weeks at sea for extremely low wages in working and living conditions that sometimes amount to “modern slavery.”

(Daniel Murphy/International Labor Rights Forum)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), in 2017, 40.1 million people worldwide worked on fishing vessels. These men and women are sometimes forcibly conscripted onto boats where their most basic rights are violated. Faced with this unacceptable situation, several associations and trade unions are pushing for the international community to better regulate the rapidly evolving industry.

Supreyanto was 47 years old. An Indonesian national, he worked on a Taiwanese vessel fishing tuna, a job which often requires several days of work without rest. It was a job for which Supreyanto gave his life. In 2015, after four months spent at sea, the fisher died on a boat that was employing him in what the captain and several sailors described as “an accident.” In reality, it was a murder.

Supreyanto suffered many abuses aboard the Taiwanese vessel, including humiliation and beatings. His story, all too common in the fishing industry, came to light thanks to the work of Allison Lee, founder of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union. Created in 2014, it is Taiwan’s first union dedicated to defending the rights of foreign sailors employed in the country.

For years, she has fought to protect these often-exploited workers. “It’s hard to know what’s going on aboard the boats,” she tells Equal Times.

“Most of the time we have nothing but our suspicions. The sailors who die often disappear into the ocean.”

As the economic stakes of the fishing industry continue to rise, stories like Supreyanto’s are increasingly commonplace on the world’s seas.

The fishing industry is one of the most dangerous and violent in the world. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 20,000 to 30,000 seafarers disappear every year while at sea. “I think it’s due to the nature of the work,” Kimberly Rogovin, senior seafood campaign coordinator at the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), tells Equal Times. “On the boats, you don’t have access to the most basic medical care.”

According to Rogovin, fishing vessels are also under “enormous economic pressure to reduce costs, so they hire the least trained and cheapest workers”. This is particularly true in the countries of Asia, which are home to 75 per cent of the world’s active fishing vessels. The fishing industry in these countries relies on migrant workers from countries where employment is scarce who are willing to work for starvation wages.

“In the Taiwanese fishing industry, which specialises in tuna, it’s mainly Indonesian and Filipino workers who work on the boats. In Thailand it’s workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. They catch all types of fish, both inside and outside of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) [editor’s note: areas within 200 nautical miles of a country’s coast where it is allowed to explore and use marine resources]. They are the ones that suffer the worst abuses. The same goes for workers in South Korea,” explains Rogovin.

Over the years, associations have documented abuses in the industry. “I think there are examples of abuse on many boats throughout the world. But this phenomenon has become extreme in recent years and certain regions are more affected than others, Thailand, for example,” Steve Trent, founder and president of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), tells Equal Times. According to a United Nations report, 59 per cent of migrant workers employed on Thai boats have witnessed the killing of another sailor.

Modern slavery

“The entire system is designed to keep sailors dependent on the boats they are on. They can’t leave or demand that their rights be respected. In this respect, working on a boat can be similar to slavery,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells Equal Times. Indeed, many of the migrant workers employed on fishing vessels incur significant debt well before going out to sea.

Recruitment agencies seek out the poorest workers they can find, offering them contracts and the possibility of work abroad. Documents are signed in exchange for a large sum of money and before they know it, workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Cambodia find themselves working on fishing vessels in deplorable conditions where they are forced to work for years to pay off their debts. The United Nations has called this practice a form of “modern slavery”.

Moreover, as Robertson explains: “Deep-sea fishing operations are conducted outside of all national labour laws, and in fact outside of any law at all, since regulations on work at sea are almost non-existent.” While fishing activities are regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in reality it is little respected.

In 2007, after two years of negotiations, the ILO adopted a new convention (Convention 188) aimed at ensuring decent working conditions for fishers aboard fishing vessels, specifically with regard to “conditions of service, accommodation and food, occupational safety and health protection.”

But the document lacks a base of support as no Asian country except for Thailand has agreed to sign it.

Moreover, the vastness of the world’s oceans and seas makes it difficult to carry out checks, which makes it difficult to ensure that conventions are being properly applied, even more so when the vessels employing exploited workers are ‘ghost ships’ engaged in illegal fishing.

International institutions refer to fishing activities that take place outside of any international monitoring as IUU fishing (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing). This practice accounts for 20 to 30 per cent of activities in the sector, the equivalent of US$10 to US$20 million a year, according to the FAO. “Many people are trying to regulate IUU fishing because they can’t profit from it,” says Rogovin.

However, the fight against illegal fishing and for better regulation of the oceans cannot be separated from the fight against forced labour. “Climate change and overfishing are making it harder to catch fish close to the shore,” says HRW’s Robertson. “When fishing vessels become fleets fishing on the high seas, the abuses against workers intensify and worsen significantly.” Furthermore, as he explains, “IUU fishing over long periods of time is really only possible if you have forcibly detained crews working indefinitely in horrible conditions”.

Migrant workers are treated like “disposable resources” while vessel owners have only one objective: catching as many fish as possible to make the biggest profits.

This has become increasingly difficult due to the overfishing of the oceans. “One in three species of fish is now overfished,” Pearl Peiyu Chen, who works for Greenpeace in Asia, tells Equal Times. “The boats have to travel farther and farther out into the ocean and stay at sea for longer periods of time to find the resources that they need.

“Commercial fishing is part of a global chain and there is enormous pressure from buyers, whether it’s larger retailers like Walmart, Tesco or Carrefour, or distributors who buy seafood products, like Nestlé,” explains Rogovin. “This enormous pressure on the industry to keep production costs low forces the boats to save money so they can continue to sell their fish.”

Greenpeace points in particular to the involvement of industry giants in forced labour. Last March, the association revealed disturbing testimonies from sailors employed on two vessels linked to Fong Chong Formosa (FCF), one of the largest tuna traders in Tawain, which sells its products on Japanese, American and European markets. While Asian countries are particularly implicated in forced labour, the EJF has also documented cases of forced labour on British and Irish boats, as well as US-flagged vessels based in Hawaii.

Putting an end to ‘transhipment’

However, solutions exist for putting an end to these degrading practices for workers around the world. Trent believes that there is a “range of easily accessible and economically viable tools that could be put in place. For example, when you look out the window, wherever you are in the world, and see cars going by, they have license plates. This prevents serious problems. At sea, many fishing vessels don’t have identification numbers. We’re advocating for the introduction of license plates from the moment the vessels are built to the moment they are destroyed.”

Another proposed solution is the installation of tracking systems and cameras on board ships. Associations are also calling for an end to ‘transhipment’ at sea. The practice is simple: in order to avoid fishing vessels making too many return trips between the coast and the high sea, other vessels come to collect the fish caught and bring the goods back to port. This practice allows vessels to stay at sea without having to interrupt their fishing activities, but it is also often associated with forced labour – a situation which has worsened with the coronavirus which has left tens of thousands of fishers and other seafarers stuck at sea due to containment measures. . However, the world’s countries are increasingly regulating transhipment as it is often associated with IUU fishing.

Faced with international pressure, but also with intergovernmental logistical and financial support, several countries have taken additional steps to improve working conditions on fishing vessels. Thailand, which has been particularly singled out for criticism in recent years, has been trying to better regulate its industry since 2015. Thanks in particular to improved working conditions on its vessels and an investment of more than 1.75 million bahts (US$56,700) to modernise fishing equipment, the country has successfully reduced the need for labour on Thai-flagged vessels by 37 per cent, thus lowering production costs while improving working conditions and wages for foreign workers.

The European Union also lifted the ‘yellow card’ it had given to Taiwan in 2015 after significant improvements made over the last three and a half years to tracking and regulation of its fishing vessels.

International conventions appear to be bearing fruit. In 2018, the Taiwanese-flagged Fuh Sheng No.11 became the first vessel detained under the provisions of the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention (No. 188) after an inspection revealed cases of forced labour on board.

But governments are not the only actors capable of fighting against forced labour on fishing vessels. Several trade unions have been formed over the last few years to defend the rights of migrant fishers. These organisations are indispensable in the fight against these practices. In addition to the role of information and prevention they play with the workers they are able to reach, they have also played a major role in recent years in denouncing ship owners who fail to respect the most basic human rights.

One such organisation, the Fishers’ Rights Network (FRN), was launched in Songkhla, one of Thailand’s largest ports, in 2017. Since then, the union has been distributing first aid kits to fishers and has helped several of them to claim unpaid wages. Its actions have forced the government to raise the minimum wage for fishers. In January 2017, the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), also based in Thailand but working on behalf of workers from Myanmar, assisted more than 2,000 migrant workers in submitting a collective labour demand to their employer.

These worldwide struggles cannot be successful without the mobilisation of all of the actors in the channels of consumption, all the way to consumers.

“Consumers need to ask questions in their supermarkets or in restaurants to ensure that seafood products are produced using sustainable practices that respect labour and human rights,” explains Robertson.

For Trent, a better political vision, greater control by retailers of where their products come from and consumer mobilisation could make a difference. “The challenges are immense, there’s no doubt about it. But we have solutions at our disposal.” The EJF founder is calling for global action to be taken: “The seas and oceans cover more than 70 per cent of our planet and have no borders. These problems cannot be solved individually. If we don’t work together, we will fail,” he says.

This is a major challenge for the thousands of migrant workers who are abused by their captains on the world’s oceans every day. Climate change and dwindling fish resources combined with growing demand are making this issue increasingly urgent. According to the FAO, global per capita fish consumption in 2016 was more than 20 kilograms a year, double what it was 50 years ago.

This story has been translated from French.