Widespread slavery in the Myanmar fishing industry

Europe is currently in talks with Myanmar to increase seafood imports from this South-East Asian country, but voices have been raised against it since reliable sources have indicated that slavery is still widespread within the Myanmar shrimp industry.

Myanmar fishmarket
Myanmar fishmarket


Myanmar, also known as Burma, borders both the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and the fishing industry is and always has been important for the people living here.

In the 19th century, the British East India Company seized control of the administration of Burma after three Anglo-Burmese wars and the country became a British colony. Burma became an independent democratic country in 1948, but democracy was to be brief. Following a coup d’état in 1962, Burma became a military dictatorship under the Burma Socialist Programme Party.

After independence, Burma became embroiled in rampant ethnic strife and a long-running civil war. Over and over again, international organisations, including the United Nations, found evidence of consistent and systematic human rights violations.

In 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved following a 2010 general election. The famous political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was released, and in 2015 her party won a majority in both houses in a landmark general election.

Despite nominal improvements and the easing of trade sanctions and other economic sanctions against the country, the situation in Myanmar is still dire, with continuing criticism of the new government’s treatment of ethnic minorities and its response to religious clashes and ethnic insurgency. Also, the Myanmar military remains a powerful force in politics.

Forced labour, slavery and inhumane conditions

Slavery and other forms of forced labour in the fishing industry of Thailand have been brought to international attention in recent years, but fewer people know of the human rights abuses going on in nearby Myanmar.

The fact that the fishing industry of Myanmar is plagued by human rights violations come as no surprise though, since such practises are so widespread in Myanmar as a whole. This is, after all, a country where one in ten school-age children is involved in child labour.

Fishin is big business in Myanmar, a country struggling with a crippled economy after decades of colonialism, military rule and international sanctions. Between September and May, an estimated 50,000 men work to bring around 10,0000 tonnes of fish and seafood to shore.

A human rights organisation that spoke to raft workers in five communities in the Irrawaddy Delta was told of physical confinement on the rafts for months at a time. There were also excessive working hours, with fishermen working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for the nine months of the fishing season. Raft workers also reported routine use of violence by supervisors.

Debts are often at the core of the issue in Myanmar, where debts to local money lenders make people vulnerable to exploitation. Some NGO’s have argued that the Myanmar government should void the debts to help people break free of debt bondage and break the vicious cycle. Local money lenders in Myanmar typically charge around 20% interest per month.

Foremen working on fishing rafts in the Gulf of Mottama, an arm of the Andaman Sea in the southern part of Myanmar, usually make around 1,000 USD for their nine-month working period, and this is rarely enough to both survive and pay back the loans back home. For many, the money is just barely enough to pay the interest on the loans and the principal never decreases.

Myanmar fishing

Another slavery scandal in the making?

So far, most of the fish and seafood caught in Myanmar is sold in local markets, but a sharp increase in export is expected to occur soon, as Myanmar is in advanced talks with seafood buyers and applicable authorities abroad. The Myanmar government is currently in talks about how more processors and exporters can meet the sustainability rules required by the EU. But are these sustainability rules really enough?

If the European Union continues to turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence of slavery in Myanmar’s seafood industry, we could be facing another slavery scandal in the years to come. We need to stop being careless about slavery in our supply chains and start working much harder to ensure that human rights are respected at every step.