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Time to end modern slavery at sea

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Indonesian maritime workers take part in a rally in Jakarta in December to condemn slavery by fishing vessels to crew members. AFP

Time to end modern slavery at sea

Forced labour and human trafficking within the fishing industry persist as acute problems and are intricately connected to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing) as fisheries crime threatens marine ecosystems and fish stocks, which adversely impacts food security and sustainable fishing in coastal communities around the world, as indicated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Fishers are often trapped in situations that include debt bondage, long hours working overtime, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, deception, and abuse of vulnerability. Many have ended up dead because of these horrible situations.

Mr F, a 31-year-old former crew member on Fwu Maan No 88 in January 2019, shared in a Greenpeace report: “The fishing crew often got bad and unpleasant treatment from the captain. We did not get our salaries as promised. Our passports were also held by the captain.”

As many as 34 Indonesian migrant fishers have detailed conditions suggesting signs of forced labour on 13 suspected foreign fishing vessels, while 62 others on 41 fishing vessels and four refrigerated transport vessels complained about further labour and human rights abuses in a follow-up report.

In addition, ILO investigations based on interviews with migrant fishers from Taiwanese-owned vessels have revealed that infringements of labour and human rights related laws are easily detected in Taiwan’s distant water fishing fleets. In an industry that is so dispersed and informal with many other violations going unreported, exact figures are hard to nail down as the issue of modern slavery extends far beyond these numbers.

Given the precarious work within the fishing industry, the ILO Work in Fishing Convention 188 (ILO C-188) was finally adopted in 2007. Overall, this convention plays a significant role in improving the welfare of fishers and their families because it sets minimum standards on occupational safety and health (OSH) and medical care, rest hours, written contracts, as well as social security protection.

Provisions outlined in the convention also benefit fishing vessel owners as improvements in OSH can lead to a reduction in the costs associated with accidents in work settings, and proper documentation regulated by the convention could save time and avoid potential detentions in ports, plus a better protected workforce will be more efficient and readily available.

While Thailand pioneered the ratification of ILO C-188 both in the ASEAN and Asian context, worker unions and civil society organisations continue to observe major flaws in the regulations and controls on Thai fishing vessels that amounts to significant gaps in the very system designed to eradicate practices of trafficking and slavery. Therefore, effective enforcement and implementation of the convention must accompany the ratification itself.

Within ASEAN, there are many driving forces of IUU fishing that perpetuates modern slavery at sea including the absence of adequate regulatory control over fishers and fishing vessels, and the lack of effective management tools to manage fishing capacity. The weak enforcement of fishing legislations, the evasion of payments related to fishing fees and taxes, and incompatible legal frameworks for combating IUU fishing all contribute to its current predicament. On top of its weak vessel licensing system and incapacitated fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS), many ASEAN fisheries are poorly managed with limited concern for fisheries conservation.

ASEAN sectoral bodies such as the Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime (SOMTC), the ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers (ACMW) and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) are key stakeholders whose mandates centre on upholding commitments of protecting the rights and welfare of migrant workers and Southeast Asian fishers alike. They are obligated to be at the forefront to empower and facilitate the entry into force of ILO C-188 in ASEAN member states (AMS).

Instruments such as the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) and ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (Cebu Declaration) do not cover migrant fishers unless they are recognised as migrant workers in the same category.

Across ASEAN, migrant workers are referenced as land-based workers, not sea-based workers. Fishers are not regarded as seafarers, that is, migrant workers employed on board a registered vessel. This means that migrant fishers are not granted the same protection and rights as other types of migrant workers.

All AMS have a significant role and responsibility in eliminating practices of forced labour and human trafficking in the fishing industry. Combating these issues is complicated as fishery resources are shared by several countries and fisheries products are traded intra-regionally before export, rendering the fate of migrant fishers to lie in the hands of many governments, from departure states to seafood importer states.

Laws and policy action thus need to be unified in monitoring and governing these issues. As such, it is imperative that AMS draw on the standards of ILO C-188 to analyse policy gaps during strategic meetings such as the ASEAN Labour Ministers Meeting, ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC), between AICHR and SOMTC, and especially during reviews of the respective bodies’ Five Year Work Plans (FYWPs).

To ascertain effectiveness and move beyond the fora space, ASEAN must take important new steps to clamp down on the use of indentured workers on the high seas – establishing a task force that specifically gathers AMS in the same space to address issues of modern slavery together and take joint corrective steps ranging from national regulations to technical arrangements along the fisheries labor supply chain.

What is essential is for ASEAN to employ a multi-stakeholder approach. In remaining committed to doing its part not only in promoting sustainable fishing practices that use safe and legal labour, but also to genuinely eradicate slavery, ASEAN must coordinate, collaborate and cooperate with the entire industry and global community, including businesses, governments, civil societies and consumers to participate and accelerate the pace of reform.

Annisa Erou and Tashrin Mohd Shahrin are Greenpeace consultants who co-lead the GPSEA Beyond Seafood ASEAN Intervention team



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