On 5th August 2022, the South Africa Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) detained a vessel suspected of forced labour in Durban. This operation was carried out by SAMSA officials who had attended the ILO 8.7 Accelerator Lab training on forced labour detection in fishing just a week before. Numerous non-compliances were found on the vessel including labour rights violations: passport retention, non-payment of wages, expired contracts and lack of medical supplies and training.
One fisher was found with a serious leg injury sustained on board and was immediately taken to hospital where he stayed for 10 days. Due to the all too common practice of withholding fishers passports, preventing him from seeking medical attention, his life had been put in danger.
The vessel was detained for a total of 2 weeks until all non-compliances had been resolved by the owner. During this period, some fishers on board requested repatriation to their home countries of Indonesia and Philippines. Others decided to stay once the issues had been resolved by the owner. “The lack of repatriation clause in the contracts is a serious issue”, explained Selwyn Bailey, SAMSA, “those who returned home opted to pay for their own flights”. Indonesian and Filipino fishers on foreign flagged vessels in South African ports have reported that they, on average, have 150 USD sent home, 100 USD withheld until the end of the contract and 50 USD paid on board each month. The fact that fishers were willing to pay the equivalent of several months wages to fly home is another indication of the poor working conditions on board.
Work in fishing is a hazardous occupation. It is also a sector with a particularly high prevalence of forced labour. The 2021 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery stipulated that there are approximately 128,000 fishers trapped in forced labour across the globe. The report also warned that this likely to be an underestimation due to the isolation of the high seas. Labour inspections on board fishing vessels are rare. Many countries exclude fishers from their labour laws. Indeed, inspections carried out aboard fishing vessels tend to focus on the fish, not the fishers. There is also a common misconception that foreign flagged vessels are “off-limits” for enforcement actors in Coastal and Port States.
Even when inspectors do enter a foreign flagged vessel, the jurisdictional complexity of dealing with the transnational nature of the industry can be overwhelming. As a result of those gaps, fishers often suffer many forms of labour rights violations such as withholding or non-payment of wages, excessive working hours, poor accommodation, inadequate food and water, high risks of injuries and illness and a complete disconnect from family and support services for months if not years.
Despite these challenges, South Africa is taking steps to ensure protection for national and migrant fishers alike. Host to the Cape Town Agreement , South Africa is also one of few countries to have ratified - and was the first to implement - the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention C188 (2007). The Convention establishes minimum standards to provide decent conditions of work on board fishing vessels of a certain size. Ensuring these standards are met on the hundreds of vessels that enter each port every year is, however, no easy feat.
In Cape Town alone, over 300 foreign flagged vessels enter the port on a yearly basis. Likely due to its strategic location for high seas fishing, Cape Town has been found by a recent study to be a port at which a high prevalence of cases of forced labour can be detected among fishers on board foreign fishing vessels. To build the capacity of SAMSA inspectors to detect forced labour and assist coordination efforts with other government agencies, the ILO 8.7 Accelerator Lab organised a training and pilot inspection in Cape Town from 25th to 28th July 2022.
Participants included officials from SAMSA, the Department of Employment and Labour, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Home Affairs. The training included an overview of forced labour in international and national legislation, tools and protocols for the detection of forced labour in fishing and a pilot joint inspection of national and foreign flagged vessels at Cape Town port.
During the pilot inspection, serious concerns were raised regarding one particular foreign-flagged vessel in which one fisher said he was being held against his will after the end of his contract, “I was supposed to be home by now. My babies miss me.” The captain then confirmed he had been instructed to “prevent the fisher from running away” by retaining his passport.
Other issues such as inadequate sleeping quarters, cleanliness and safety on board were also found. Home affairs investigated the case and the fisher is now home with his wife and three young children
In the post-inspection debrief, participants reported their reactions and findings. “We cannot allow these abuses to happen on our watch, in our waters”, said one inspector from Durban, just a week before the foreign-flagged vessel in question was detained. We are starting to see the “sharp-edged phase” of South Africa’s battle against forced labour. The Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch of the ILO launched the 8.7 Accelerator Lab Initiative in 2021 to accelerate progress towards the elimination of child labour and the eradication of forced labour. The strategy is centred around 6 “acceleration factors” or critical project components for sustainable impact. It also employs a sectoral approach to these issues with a balanced portfolio of country level interventions. Similar activities, trainings and pilot joint inspections have recently been carried out in the “origin” country of Indonesia.