Advocating for unheard voices in seafood slavery

A new report explores issues of modern slavery and forced labour in the offshore fishing industry in the Asia Pacific Region.

Story by Rei Fortes.

Modern day slavery in the global seafood industry is a recurring issue involving illegal fishing, forced labour and human trafficking. Men  from low-income households in Southeast Asia and the Pacific often take on jobs onboard fishing vessels under the false pretence of a decent salary and working conditions but instead find themselves working long hours at sea under extreme labour conditions, receiving little to no pay.

The global slavery index lists Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan as countries having a high risk of exploitive labour conditions that breach human rights laws onboard fishing vessels. A new report led by Associate Professor Sallie Yea, a Tracey Banivanua Mar Fellow at La Trobe University, provides a platform for Indonesian and Fijian fisherman to tell their stories and shed light on the issues and experiences they encountered while working on the fishing vessels.

“The idea for this project came through victims of trafficking and forced labour, in the fishing sector and other sectors, being very much stereotyped in the media in terms of popular accounts and government policy research,” says Dr Yea. “We wanted a project where the voices of victims are included in the research in ways that weren’t influenced by pre-existing stereotypes or institutional agendas.”

Dr Yea co-wrote the report with Dr Christina Stringer from the Centre for Research on Modern Slavery at the University of Auckland Business School. In addition to the report, a podcast miniseries hosted by director of La Trobe Asia Dr Bec Strating interweaves the victims’ voices. Winrock International and La Trobe University funded the research.

The research team worked with two NGOs, Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI) and the Human Dignity Group in Fiji, to help the organisations develop ethical qualitative research skills with fisherman who were victims of human trafficking.

Dr Yea’s team aided the NGOs in communicating with the fishermen and creating a space to share and record their individual stories. One of the project aims was to help the NGOs develop further skills in advocating for human trafficking in the seafood industry.

“Many of the stories shared by the fishermen involved working in unbearable conditions and receiving a salary less than the agreed amount on their contracts,” says Dr Christina Stringer. “They worked in unsafe conditions with many suffering injuries, and some were left with long-term incapacity and diminished health.”

The study also focussed on the difficulties the fishermen had in accessing justice or obtaining support after their experience at sea.

“One of the key findings is that access to justice has been very piecemeal for these men,” says Dr Yea. “Many have their contracts invalidated or disregarded, and it is very difficult for them to even just recover lost salaries or get compensation for injuries that they have suffered onboard the vessels.”

The report made several recommendations on what governments and NGOs can prioritise in order to advocate for fishermen working in the seafood industry and also helping these men obtain justice after their experiences.

Dr Stringer emphasises the need to improve legislation and laws regarding working conditions in the global fishing industry. Most importantly, to consider the range of problems faced by the fishers onboard the fishing vessels.

“We need to ensure relevant jurisdictions adhere to or abide by international conventions and standards regarding working conditions in distant water fishing. There also needs to be a full consideration of the spectrum of exploitive experiences that would assist in reducing the potential to focus on certain (extreme) experiences at the exclusion of experiences that are less severe.”

Dr Yea hopes that this study and future research projects paves a new way to approaching victims of human trafficking, especially in the seafood industry. Allowing the fisherman to tell and record their stories helps bring awareness towards issues in seafood slavery and the long-term effects on their lives that are not covered by mainstream media.

“Some of the issues were not as severe - such as short-changed salaries. But over time, these things can become quite a big mess. These men need a lot more help and support when they go back home. The reintegration is currently not adequate and both the government and NGOs need to take more responsibility.”