EJF report shines a light on slavery at sea

The ”Blood and Water” report released by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) highlights the problem of human rights violations at sea – including forced labour, debt bondage, physical and sexual abuse, unsanitary living conditions, insufficient food and water, and outright murders.

The report focuses on fishing vessels from 13 countries operating across three oceans, and flying flags of both developing and developed nations – including the flags of countries in North America, the Middle East and Europe.

A vast majority of the abused crew members encountered during EJF´s research for the report were migrants and many of them had been trafficked by brokers. Research concerning Thai vessels did, for instance, reveal that recently arrived migrants who are unable to speak Thai and unaware of Thai labour laws are prime subjects for exploitation. To compound the situation, brokers (not just in Thailand) often charge huge fees of the applicant, essentially forcing the job seeker to take out a big loan with the broker to pay for the placement. This far too often kick-starts a cycle of debt bondage.

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Declining fish population increases human rights abuse

The EJF report outlines how the steep decline in fish populations worldwide has increased the occurrence of human rights violations at sea. To maintain profits in severely depleted ecosystems, vessel owners reduce their costs by exploiting vulnerable workers. This includes abuse such as the withholding of wages, incredibly long workdays, cramped and unsanitary living conditions, and insufficient food and water.

Interviews with Vietnamese sea workers revealed that they were fully aware when they left port that the vessel was heading for Thai waters to engage in illegal fishing because fishing in Vietnamese waters was no longer viable due to the depletion of the Vietnamese fish populations. (The Vietnamese fishing fleet is one of the largest in the world and currently contains over 100,000 vessels.)

A Charter for Transparency

EJF is now calling for the adoption of EJF´s Charter for Transparency. This charter contains 10 logistically deliverable, low-cost measures that would make it significantly less difficult to identify and act against illegal fishing operations. This would in turn help promote the law-abiding businesses in the industry – businesses that are currently facing unfair competition from illegal operations.

According to EJF Executive Director Steve Trent, the 10 measures are well within the reach of any country. Among other things, the charter calls for the publication of vessel license lists and making unique identifying numbers mandatory for vessels.

Trent also urges all countries to ratify, implement and enforce international agreements such as the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188).

Seafood is a huge global industry where enormous amounts of money are at stake. In 2017, it was valued at 152 billion USD and represented over 9% of the total agricultural exports across the world (excluding forestry).

In the 1960s, the yearly per capita fish consumption hovered just below 10 kg of fish. In 2017, it exceeded 20 kg. The human population has also increased notably in this time span, and those two factors combined are fueling an ever-growing demand for seafood. Despite efforts to control the industry, a lot of the fish that ultimately lands on our plates hail from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing operations.

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Supriyanto – murdered at sea on a Tawainese ship

One of the many horrifying stories including in the EJF report is the one about Supriyanto, an Indonesian man who died onboard a Tawainese longliner after being physically abused on the captain´s orders.

After working on a fishing vessel back in 2014, Supriyanto returned to his home in Indonesia. Eventually, he decided to go back to sea to obtain money for his family. He was recruited by an Indonesia-based agency and got a 24-month long contract promising him 350 USD a month in wages.

Later, Supriyanto found out that the employer would withhold 100 USD from his wages each month – and that this money would be given to him at the end of the contract period, a measure intending to keep him from running leaving prematurely. Over the first few months, even more, ”deductions” and ”fees” were removed from Supriyantos wages, resulting in him only getting 100 USD for his first two months of work.

During his time on the fishing vessel, Supriyanto was beaten and abused by both the captain and his fellow crew members – on the captain´s orders. This abuse is documented by photographic and video evidence. Supriyantos sustained deadly injuries from the abuse and died onboard, after working there for less than four months.

Bonded labour in the United Arab Emirate

One of the countries investigated by the EJF for the report is the United Arab Emirate, an autocracy governed by the ruling Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain.

A series of fishing communities dot the coast of northern UAE, where the fishing crews consist chiefly of migrants from India while the boats are owned by local UAE citizens. Workers have reported how their identification documents are confiscated by their employers to prevent them from leaving, causing them to work in a semi-bonded fashion. They are not paid in cash; instead, they receive a small proportion of the catch which is barely enough for a fisherman to feed himself, and the fishermen became completely reliant on the boat owners to survive.

Over 50 fishermen drowned after being forced to fish in severe weather

The EJF report includes plenty of data from a two-year-long investigation carried out by the South Korea-based Advocates for Public Interest Law and the International Organization for Migration. This investigation unveiled numerous cases of human rights abuses on board South Korean fishing vessels, which are often staffed with migrant workers from nearby countries – such as Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and North Korea.

One glaring incident is the wrecking of the Oryong 501 in 2014. The captain forced the crew, who largely consisted of migrant workers, to continue fishing despite the dangerous weather conditions, and the vessel – where safety provisions were in an abysmal state – sank in the cold waters of the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska, US. Of the 60 members of the crew, only seven survived.

Abuse and starvation on U.S. flagged longliners

Hawaii´s capital Honolulu has become a hub for the fishing of swordfish and tuna, and 140 U.S. flagged longliner fishing boats use the port here to unload fish that is then air-freighted to the mainland. This is no small scale operation – it is a major industry worth an estimated 110 million USD per year.

These boats are largely staffed by migrant workers who lack the visas required to enter the United States and who are therefore by law required to be detained on board each time the ship comes to port. (Law I259.) The vessel captain is even required by law to retain each worker´s passport.

Brokers providing these ships with workers charge the ship owners up to 10,000 USD per worker, and this cost is often transferred on to the worker who is forced to pay back the shipowner.

In September 2016, serious human rights violations were discovered on some of these boats, including forced, unpaid labour and horrific living conditions. Some of the workers reported being paid less than 1 USD per hour while simultaneously being forced to pay off the debts they took on to get the job. The workers were predominantly from Indonesia, the Philippines and the island-nation Kiribati. One Indonesian worker reportedly owned 5,000 USD for his travel to Hawaii, recruitment fees and money spent to find a replacement for him (!).

In 2010, two Indonesian fishermen managed to escape their ship in 2010 while it was docked in San Francisco. Their reports to the San Francisco police includes information about 20-hour shifts and how they were beaten and kicked by the ship´s captain. They had been denied medical treatment for work-related injuries and fed so little that one of the men had resorted to frequently eating raw fish from the catch.