Lack of oversight is allowing fishing companies to flaunt regulations on human trafficking and overfishing, but campaigners say progress is slowly being made.
Around 21 million people are enslaved worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation, with workers on fishing boats especially vulnerable to abuse.
In a 2011 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that some 22,000 people from Laos, for example, had been taken against their will into the Southeast Asian fishing industry.
“Perhaps the most disturbing finding … was the severity of the abuse of fishers trafficked for the purpose of forced labour on board fishing vessels,” the report said.
An investigation by The Guardian last year found that “large numbers of men [are] bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand” to supply shrimp to leading supermarkets around the world, including Walmart, Carrefour, Costco, and Tesco.
“I thought I was going to die. They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings,” a Cambodian man trafficked into the Thai fishing industry told the newspaper.
Michael Field, investigative journalist and author of The Catch: How Fishing Companies Reinvented Slavery and Plunder the Oceans, has reported for many years on slavery and forced labour on fishing boats, operating in the waters of his native New Zealand.
The book describes how Korean and Russian-flagged ships used primarily Indonesian crews, many of whom were underpaid or barely paid, to fish in the dangerous Southern Ocean and Southern Pacific. Workers were kept in poor conditions and often only fed frozen fish meal while working for hours and even days at time.
Field described a litany of problems and abuses on foreign fishing vessels operating out of New Zealand waters: “Boats had kept working after men from them had drowned. Crews had been slapped, punched, and hit wish fish and hammers. Lifeboats had not been in working condition. Crew health problems had been ignored, and men had had to work for days on end without breaks. It was standard for them to have their passports confiscated so they couldn’t leave.”
The problem, Field told the South China Morning Post, is endemic across the fishing industry.
“I’ve almost stopped looking at what flag flies off the stern of the ship because that’s often a corporate decision of little consequence to the men on board it,” he said. “The fishing industry is plagued by it.”
“If you’re going to put men in fishing boats then they’re entitled to the dignity, the safety and the care and salary or wages for them to be able to go back home and make an honest living.”
Despite the horrific nature of the abuse, and its widespread nature, Field said that progress is being made, pointing to legislation passed in a number of Western nations meaning that retailers can no longer ignore how their fish is sourced.
“The European Union is very strong now on requiring really good supply chains which include things like labour conditions in the fishing industry to ensure that people are properly treated,” he said. “California now has a state law which prohibits human trafficking in the supply chain.”
“When you’re buying fish, I think as a consumer now you’re entitled to know that the people who took the risks, who did all the hard work, have been fairly and adequately rewarded for their labour.”
In Britain, the Modern Slavery Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday with unanimous support. The bill places an annual duty on large companies to disclose what steps they have taken to ensure their supply chains are “slavery free.”
“We all have a responsibility to stamp out this evil trade and this world-leading measure calls on businesses to play their part,” said Karen Bradley, minister for modern slavery and organised crime.
“There are already many companies taking a lead and taking action. Greater transparency will give customers, campaigners and shareholders the information they need to hold all big businesses to account while also supporting companies to do the right thing.”
While progress is being made on stamping out human trafficking, lack of oversight and poor enforcement of existing regulations are key factors contributing to another major problem: overfishing.
Field’s book describes how companies flaunt regulations aimed at controlling how much certain stocks of fish can be exploited, overfishing vulnerable species and pushing many to the brink of extinction.
“Some of these companies are acting with far too much muscle and are not actually interested in the final outcome, just to incredibly overfish in many parts of the world, particularly in the Pacific,” he said.
Chinese companies are increasingly major players in the area. China increased the size of its South Pacific tuna fleet alone by more than 125 per cent between 2010 and 2012.
“What’s the worry is that China comes to the game now with a lot more economic clout and is able to influence Pacific governments” into allowing it to fish their waters largely unregulated, Field said.
Veteran Fijian fishing operator Russell Dunham told Field: “We all worry about the sheer number of vessels, and their technology means they now have double the firepower of five years ago in terms of how many hooks they can set.
“The Chinese will fish until there is one tuna left in the ocean, and since the government is paying the bills the fish won’t stand a chance.”
China’s sheer size and economic power means that if it were to adopt global fisheries norms, the world, in the words of associate US Naval War College professor Lyle Goldstein, would see a “giant step forward for environmental protection of the oceans in the coming century.”
Field is somewhat optimistic that this attitude shift could occur, as the Chinese government and consumers become more aware of the potential dangers of overfishing.
“I’d like to think that China is realising, and in the longer term they have to realise, that they can’t fish at this rate for much longer,” Field said.
He also sees growing pressure for supranational action, as consumers in countries around the world, particularly those dependent on fishing, are becoming more conscious of the dangers.
“If we have more and more fisheries collapsing, the public clamour for some kind of concerted, combined action is going to be pretty strong,” Field said. “We’re an international world where the good guys and the bad guys [are] answerable to public opinion on the world stage.
“The era of cheap fish is over.”