Expert series: Forced labour in the seafood industry

Expert series: Forced labour in the seafood industry

Marcelo Hidalgo is the founder of Seafoodmatter, as well as the director and co-founder of On-board Social Accountability, a not-for-profit organization based in New Zealand. Currently the Sustainability Director of the Fishing Industry Association of Papua New Guinea, he has been working in the seafood supply chain industry for more than 20 years. His expertise covers a variety of topics, including traceability & verification, seafood sustainability, policy development as well as auditing and compliance. Over the past 10 years, he has developed tools to assess human rights at sea and crew welfare, to assist in mitigating IUU, slavery, and forced labour in the seafood supply chain.

*Factory & Fishing vessel with 120 workers on-board. Vladivostok, Russia @marcelohidalgo

An overview of forced labour and human rights abuses in the seafood supply chain

The seafood industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with a total export value of 152 billion US$ in 2017 (FAO, 2018). The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 59,6 million people are involved directly in fisheries and aquaculture. However, this profitable global industry faces the threat of labour abuse as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) issues.

Social and working conditions, including workers’ living conditions, are important globally in the seafood supply chain, whether at sea or during land-based processing. There have been an increasing number of NGO investigations into this subject, producing reports on slavery at sea, forced labour, and other forms of abuse which have a severe negative impact on the lives of workers and their families.

Labour abuse and forced labour are not unique problems of the fisheries and aquaculture global industry. These issues have long been detected and reported in several commodities supply chains such as coffee, banana, palm oil, macadamia, tea, spices, and horticulture, in countries like Guatemala, India, and Kenya. 

However, 2014 proved to be a breakpoint year for uncovering such human rights abuses in the seafood supply chain. Undercover investigations by several well-recognized and credible newspapers, such as The New York Times, Reuters, and The Guardian, brought the issue of slavery in the Thai fishing industry to the surface, revealing its links to the tuna industry. Since then, investigations by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) have also uncovered several examples of human rights abuses aboard vessels, flagged to different nations and across geographies. These abuses range from poor living conditions and no wages paid, to physical abuse and even murder (EJF, 2019).

Understanding the reasons and risk factors behind these labour abuses 

In the fishing industry, labour costs amount to 60% while workers’ on-board social benefits, including repatriation, can represent up to 30% of the fishing operations of a legal company (registered and operating legally in any country). Illegal fishing operations (IUU) attempt to cut down on these costs, and as a consequence, put human lives and fish stocks at risk. This manifests through crew coercion, including forced labour and slavery, which severely infringe upon the human rights of crew-members. Sometimes, there is no payment, no adequate food and no decent living conditions, on fishing trips which can last longer than 12 months. IUU and illegal operators also put honest fishermen at an unfair disadvantage and weaken coastal communities.

The increasing consumption of seafood globally drives up demand for seafood, thus creating a perfect storm for IUU fishing. Overfishing also takes place as a result – this moves fish stocks far from traditional fishing grounds and makes fishing trips longer and more expensive. This combination of overfishing, climate change, weak governance, and overcapacity of fishing efforts all contribute to the decline of fish stocks and the longer duration of fishing trips. This has an overall negative impact on crew welfare on-board, particularly in the case of illegal fishing operations. 

Compounding this issue, climate change phenomena like floods and droughts have pushed local people to migrate and find jobs in other cities or countries. This increases their vulnerability as these migrants are often compelled into accepting jobs with poor conditions and/or illegal practices.

How can forced labour in the seafood industry be addressed?

Forced labour and slavery are not easy to tackle directly, and we know that they are highly linked with IUU and overfishing. In 2001, the FAO developed an internal action plan to address this issue. Currently, the IUU fishing index provides an IUU fishing score for all coastal states and allows countries to be benchmarked against each other, which makes it a good tool for assessing the vulnerability prevalence of IUU fishing.

Tuna carrier unloading in Ningbo, China @marcelohidalgo

A good way to fight against forced labour and slavery is to have a holistic risk-based approach in your tuna supply chain sourcing policy (onboard social accountability), including processing and fishing. For instance, follow the 10 principles of transparency of EJF for fisheries, or source and buy your tuna fish from legal operation and slavery-free certified fisheries*.

Responsible Fishery Vessel Scheme (RFVS)

AENOR for responsible fishing

Seafood Task Force Tuna standard

Fair-trade fishery standard

Slavery free trade

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

Marcelo Hidalgo – Onboard social accountability auditor

contact@seafoodmatter.com