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Report on the Fishing industry

Caught at sea: fighting forced labour in the fishing industry

The fishing sector is an important source of employment, income and food production for many countries. But there are serious incidents of abuse in some fisheries and fishing vessels. By Beate Andrees, head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour.

Comment | 31 May 2013
In many countries the fishing sector is not only a major source of employment and household incomes, but plays an important role in ensuring food security and in the overall economy. Most of the fishing industry applies decent working and living conditions to fishers.

However, there are serious incidents of abuse in some fisheries and fishing vessels, which amount to forced labour and human trafficking. While not being representative of overall working conditions in the industry, these criminal practices, which harm not only the fishers themselves but also tarnish the image of the fishing sector, need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. This is the key message of a new ILO report entitled Caught at sea: Forced labour and trafficking in fisheries recently published by the ILO.

The report also highlighted the need for more research to assess the extent and prevalence of forced labour in the industry, however, available evidence suggests that gaps in legislation and enforcement are exploited by unscrupulous intermediaries and fishing vessel operators.
For example, a new explorative study (forthcoming) on working conditions in Thailand’s fishing sector, implemented by the ILO in collaboration with its constituents, found that about 5 per cent of fishers surveyed were unable to leave their work due to threat of violence or of being denounced to the authorities, and the withholding of documents or assets. The vast majority of them were from Myanmar. These abusive practices have also been reported from other regions in the world, as the report highlights.

Recent trends within the fisheries sector, including overfishing, illegal fishing and the increasing use of workers from developing countries mean that more migrant workers are finding their way to the fishing industry. Poor training, inadequate access to complaints mechanisms and a lack of enforcement of safety and labour standards make these fishers particularly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking.

While most countries, including Thailand, are committed to fighting forced labour and trafficking, activities at sea can be reclusive and hard to monitor. The worlds’ oceans are subject to a different jurisdictional regime from land. In particular, significant gaps exist when it comes to prevention, victim protection and compensation.

Need for partnerships and regulation

There is an urgent need for coordination between inspectors and law enforcement within States and across borders. The same goes for international agencies, government, workers’and employers’organizations, and civil society organizations.

An example of such partnerships is the TRIANGLE Project in the Greater Mekong sub-Region. This is a cooperation project between the ILO, its constituents and civil society in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, which aims to reduce the exploitation of labour migrants by improving recruitment and labour protection policies and practices.

The project is working with the Royal Thai Government and the National Fisheries Association among others, on a number of interventions to improve conditions for migrant workers, for example by setting up labour coordination centres for the fishing sector in seven provinces across the country. These centres aim to facilitate the recruitment of migrant workers and provide training and support. .

Improved regulation and the implementation of safety and labour standards can play an important role in preventing abusive practices in the industry.

The ILO and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have established a number of binding legal instruments to improve fishers’ safety and working conditions (the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention (No. 188), the IMO’s Torremolinos Protocol and the IMO’s Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel (STCW-F), as well as non-binding recommendations and codes, some of which were developed jointly between the ILO, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the IMO.

With the exception of the STCW-F, which entered into force in March 2013, none of these legal instruments are in force. The slow pace of ratification of conventions inhibits effective control of safety and labour standards in the fisheries sector, and undermines important opportunities to prevent and detect instances of abuse on board.

The absence of binding legal frameworks also contributes to a lack of transparency with respect to information on vessel identity, ownership and movement. This undermines the effective investigation and prosecution of criminals. The new ILO report, however, stressed that the vast majority of States, including most flag States, are committed to tackling forced labour and human trafficking as they have ratified ILO Convention, 1930 (No 29) and the UN Protocol to Supress, Prevent and Punish Trafficking in Persons. This commitment extends to the protection of workers on vessels flying their flag.

The report also recognizes opportunities in working closely with agencies that address crime in fisheries, such as Interpol and UNODC.

ILO forum

The report on forced labour and human trafficking in the fishing sector, as well as the ongoing work of the TRIANGLE project, were presented in an information session held during the ILO’s Global Dialogue Forum to promote the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention 2007 (No. 188). The tripartite forum discussed ways to promote the Convention and how it can be used to help address major challenges in the industry. Among other things, it recognized that the enforcement and monitoring procedures of Convention No. 188 can help prevent forced labour and human trafficking in this sector. The report of the discussion and points of consensus from the forum will be submitted to the Governing Body of the ILO. These will help shape efforts by the ILO and its constituents to improve working and living conditions on board fishing vessels.

Ensuring decent work for fishers: ILO's work in fishing convention

The fishing industry employs more than 50 million people around the world and those who earn their lives from the sea are often exposed to challenging and risky conditions. The ILO's Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188) was adopted to ensure that fishers have decent working conditions on board fishing vessels. The Convention also puts in place a mechanism to ensure compliance with, and enforcement of its provisions by States. Now, fishing vessels and those on extended international voyages may be subject to labour inspections in foreign ports.