The number of wild fishes that are caught globally each year it is estimated to range from 0.97 to 2.7 trillion and it is concluded that the number of fish caught is of the order of a trillion, if we take into account the limitations of the fish size data available. And of course, these numbers do not include unrecorded captures, such as fishes caught illegally and those caught as bycatch and discarded1.

But this is widely known among the animal advocacy world.

What is not widely known though yet, is that the Fishing Industry is not only exploiting and murdering aquatic animals but also people: human trafficking victims who have been sold as slaves and thrown into forced labor. By now, such cases of slavery have been documented and reported by many media agents, not only in Thailand2 and Indonesia3 but also in Hawaii4, Uruguay (in Chinese vessels)5, South Africa (in Taiwanese vessels)6 and Taiwan14-20, West Africa and Las Palmas, Canary Islands7 as well as in the United Kingdom (Ireland8 and England9).

The Global Slavery Index has published in 2018 a list of the Top 20 fishing countries categorized according to risk of modern slavery in their fishing industry but also, a table of countries assessed in the Global Slavery Index 2016, when each fishing country has been rated as a country with low, medium, or high vulnerability to modern slavery in the fishing industry, according to National Fisheries Policy and Wealth and Institutional Capacity. In other words, a country’s vulnerability on these two factors combined represent their overall vulnerability to modern slavery within that industry. You can see the Top 20 fishing countries with high risk of modern slavery along with the list of the ratings in the other countries here.

A recent publication on “seafood” (sea animals) imported to Europe and the US suggests that when domestically caught fishes and imported ones are combined in local markets, the risk of purchasing “seafood” (sea animals) contaminated with modern slavery increases approximately 8.5 times, compared with domestically caught fishes10.

Below, you will find a thorough presentation of all  cases related to modern slavery in the fishing industry, listed by country:

ENGLAND:

In December 2017, the UK police rescued nice suspected victims of slavery, Africans and Asians (from Ghana, India and Sri Lanka), from British trawlers in Portsmouth, owned by a British family. One of the victims had a head injury and all of them stated that they were working long hours with very little rest for only 850-950 British pounds a month. The most “impressive” in this case is that after the first five alleged victims came forward to the police, the very next day a replacement crew of four had already boarded. Both captains were arrested and under investigation. It is worth to mention that the trawler firms run by this British family, have been fined almost £650,000 in the past for breaching fishing quotas and safety regulations11.

URUGUAY:

In May 2014, a group of 28 African immigrants (24 from Sierra Leone and the rest from Ghana), were found to be held in slavery on a Chinese fishing vessel of the coast of Uruguay for 7 months during which they have never been paid. Not only they have been forced to work but they have also been abused. Doctors examined them and confirmed that they had wounds and scars which were a proof of having being beaten as well as 20 of them had early symptoms of malaria and possibly tuberculosis so they were hospitalized for a week to Uruguayan hospitals to get treated. The victims said that food has been withheld from them and that even when someone was getting sick, he was not allowed to sleep. They basically survived on daily small portions of rice and they even had to drink ocean water while the Chinese were drinking fresh water.5

Surprisingly, the Uruguayan criminal court which only questioned 12 out of the 28 victims, found no merit to continue investigating into this incident and the captain of the vessel, who was under custody, was allowed to leave the country. The prosecutor said that the testimonies collected were not enough to support charges claiming that “…there was clearly a clash of cultures referred to food and working times”. Uruguay’s Fishermen union solicitor at the time said that the case should have been addressed by the Complex Crimes Department and not by a criminal court12.

HAWAII:

This case has been first published and thoroughly investigated by the Associated Press in which’s report4 has been stated that “with no legal standing on U.S. soil, the men are at the mercy of their American captains on American-flagged, American-owned vessels.” thus they had little legal recourse in these areas, and they have being detained on boats where U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires captains to hold the men’s passports. This normally goes against federal human trafficking laws which are saying that bosses who possess workers’ identification documents can face up to five years in prison.

(The following information is a summary of AP’s report4 unless stated another source)

Meanwhile Hawaii’s fishing industry is one of the most tightly regulated for catch limits and sustainability, attracting companies proudly so called ocean-friendly. In addition, the former President of the United Stated Barack Obama expanded protections in Hawaii by creating in August 2016 the world’s largest marine preserve but apparently, he failed to address working conditions.

In March 2016 a number of 700 foreign men from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific nations were found to work in a fishing fleet without visas. These men were living in degraded conditions on some boats, forced to use buckets instead of toiletssuffering running sores from bed bugs and sometimes lacking sufficient food. They typically sign two-three-year renewable contracts, and the ones who extend them repeatedly can stay up to a decade on boats with five to six men each. One boat’s schedule looked like this: Work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., break two hours for lunch and rest. Work from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m., eat and sleep again.  Start a new shift at 8 a.m. The recruitment: When boat owners need crew, they pay brokers abroad or in Honolulu to bring the men from overseas — mostly from Indonesia, the PhilippinesVietnam and the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati.

What is unique in the case of Hawaii is that this was legal (!) due to a federal loophole which allows them to work but exempts them from basic labor protections as it exempts commercial fishing boat owners from federal rules enforced almost everywhere else. Each time an effort has been made by lawmakers in order to introduce measures to close the government loophole, they are repeatedly met with resistance from the commercial fishing industry lobby. More specifically, the Hawaii Longline Association has led the fight against reform13.

In 2018, the Turtle Island Restoration Network filed a case for this issue with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Last year, Georgetown University’s Human Rights Institute released an extensive report on the subject, after interviewing 43 fishermen, pointing also the lack of meaningful change. You can read the report here.

As shocking as it sounds, bait and ice can cost more than crew salaries: They are paid as little as 70 cents an hour, as little as $350 a month (which can go up to $500-600 with bonuses and some get a percentage of the catch making it possible to triple their wages), way below the U.S minimum wage but still a lot more than what they can make back home where people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the foreign workers in Hawaii earn less than $5,000 for a full year. By contrast, the average pay for an American deckhand nationwide in 2015 was $28,000 –sometimes for jobs that last just a few months, according to government statistics-. Experienced American crew members working in Alaska can make up to $80,000 a year.

Twenty per cent of their catch ends up (often after flown fresh in airtight cool boxes) at luxury restaurants from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York as well as at premium “seafood” counters across the country, from Whole Foods to Costco, and is cooked by celebrity chefs whereas about 80 percent stays in Hawaii, ending up at hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, as John Kaneko said, the program manager for the Hawaii Seafood Council at the time.

When representatives from Whole Foods were asked to comment, the answer was that only 1% of their “seafood” comes from Hawaii and they are assured that boat crews are well paid and getting health insurance and bonuses. The truth is far from this though: Syamsul Maarif from Indonesia was sent back home after almost dying when his boat sank 160 miles off Hawaii. He lost everything, and as he said it took four months to get his pay. Knowing that they have no VISA, as he stated “we can’t demand more because we are illegal although we want the same standards as the other workers in America, but we are just small people working there based on the contract that we signed.”. One of the boat observers’ coordinator, Forest O’Neil, had stated“They are like floating prisons.”

As revealed by the AP investigation, in a period of 10 years, five fishermen in the Hawaii fleet died when boats sank or burned and at least four other workers were never found after falling overboard. Two men’s efforts for better lives ended with their deaths after they were stabbed at the dock in knife fights. 

What’s ironic in the case of Hawaii is that every year, the U.S. blacklists countries that have the worst human trafficking records. So why turning a blind eye to what is happening to their very own waters? Even though these men never legally enter the United States, the government provides a transit visa that lets them exit through Honolulu’s airport: “AP reporters watched as two fishermen from Kiribati prepared to fly out. They weren’t allowed to touch their passports, which were handed to a contracted driver in a black SUV. They would not be paid until arriving home.”

But they are not allowed to land at the airport of Honolulu so how do they go to Hawaii? A typical route could be Indonesia-Australia-Fiji-Western Samoa-American Samoa. Some pass-through Amsterdam whereas others end up in Mexico or Panama. They’re then picked up by American captains for a 10-20 days sail to Honolulu. Some of them have even been made to leap into the sea. In one video shown to AP, men swam from one boat to another through big waves, keeping their belongings in plastic bags.

It’s obvious that “The entire system, which contradicts other state and federal laws, operates with the blessing of high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and officials” as stated by the Associated Press. 

As a result of the AP investigation and Georgetown University’s Human Rights Institute’ s report, protests were held and few select grocery stores stopped buying longline-caught fish from the Honolulu Fish Auction – but that was only temporary, as stated by the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

TAIWAN:

Taiwan has one of the world’s largest fishing fleets, with more than 1,800 vessels flying their own flag, plus hundreds of other Taiwanese-owned vessels sailing under flags of convenience. Among the distant water vessels, almost 90 percent fish for tuna in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. Being far in the deep sea, these vessels can spend years away from port, assisted by trans-shipments of goods and cargo, leading to migrant workers on these boats among the most exploited and vulnerable.

Up to 160.000 migrant workers, most from Indonesia and Philippines, are working in Taiwan’s distant water fishing vessels, based on the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 201414 although the official number, according to data provided by the Thai Fishery Agency and Ministry of Labour was about 26,000, as stated in EJF’s 2018 report15 and this discrepancy of approximately 134,000 people highlights the problem Taiwan faces in understanding the level of its human trafficking problem.

Based on information gathered in 2018 by the media agent “The Diplomat”16The workers on inshore boats sleep in small compartments that fit three men, in the holds of the ships but they have no room to stretch out. They sleep in awkward positions and relieve themselves in containers. If their boat pulls into port, they take cold showers in dockside facilities. Beatings are known to occur frequently on the distant water fishing boats but are hard to quantify as these violations occur out of sight. Although there is evidence in some cases, many other reports reach land through whispers and hearsay. Every source interviewed for this article has indicated that severe beatings on distant water vessels happen with regularity.

For inshore fishermen, the long hours and short nights are interrupted between the months of June and October, during Taiwan’s typhoon season when the workers are kept busy by conducting maintenance on the ships. According to sources interviewed for that article, when typhoons hit, they are not allowed to seek shelter on land or enjoy a holiday, and are forced to remain on the ships in port.

Quitting is made difficult for migrant fishermen, who have to return to the brokerage firms to collect their identification documents. The brokers, eager to maintain their quotas and payouts from the fishing agencies, do everything in their power to convince the fishermen to stay. In many cases the fees of canceling a contract and returning home are enough to convince them to go back to work. The brokers collect their fees, and the cycle continues.”

Earlier, in 2015, the 2nd part17 of a series called “Outlaw Ocean”18 was published by Ian Urbina for the New York Times and its subject is a mass murder of 5 migrants while floating on debris in the ocean, that was grasped on a video and uploaded to Youtube. One of the vessels seen in the video, which may have been the shooting vessel, was the Taiwanese Chun I n.21719. By 2016, no arrests have been made. As Urbina commented, “on the Taiwanese vessels that have appeared in the coast of Africa, South America, the Philippines and elsewhere, workers had experienced pretty egregious conditions on long haul fishing ships”.

In April 2016, Greenpeace published an extensive report20 of a 12-month investigation in which it is illustrated that the systemic illegal and unsustainable fishing practices within Taiwan’s fishing industry goes hand in hand with labor and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, this report also reveals that the authorities are aware of these issues but do little to address them despite national and international requirements.

In 2017 Taiwan passed the Labor Standards Act which empowers enforcement of labor violations within Taiwan’s jurisdiction but several years earlier Taiwan’s legislature voted that distant fishing vessels no longer fell under Taiwanese jurisdiction.

Allison Lee, secretary of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union, based in Taiwan’s Yilan County, substantiates the findings claiming that “Inshore, approximately 60 percent of the fishermen experience some sort of abuse” and offshore the rate would be much higher. The union also revealed that the courts rule against labor complaints, claiming that conditions for the laborers, including salaries, are comparatively much higher in Taiwan than in their home countries, and that they are already benefiting from their hard labor in Taiwan. The abuse, exploitation, and beatings, according to the courts, are part of the “benefits” that come from living and working in Taiwan’s fishing industry. However, Lee was feeling that the situation is changing, and within five or 10 years there would be an improvement. Additionally, a spokesperson from the EJF stated that with the discoveries putting pressure on the government making the problem appear much worse, so NGO’s were hopeful for a change.

Meanwhile, the only union representing migrant fishermen in Taiwan overall receives reports by workers from ports all around Taiwan who seek out the union for aid, but being based on volunteer work, little can be done and the pressure is overwhelming.

In the beginning of 2018 a coalition called “Human Rights for Migrant Fishers” has been created with representatives from Greenpeace, the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan Seamen and Fishermen’s Service Center, Serve the People Association, the Taiwan International Workers’ Association, and the Taiwan Association for Human Rights and the goal is how to best address the lack of enforcement of the 2017 law. Lee has seen many people give up on this problem after not seeing immediate results. She feels that the situation is changing, and within five or 10 years there will be an improvement16.

West Africa and las Palmas, Canary Islands:

(The following information is a summary of EJF’s report7 unless stated another source)

On 12th September 2010, EJF staff in Sierra Leone documented Marcia 707, a Korean-flagged canoe support vessel, illegally deploying canoes and when interviewed the crews of the canoes. EJF learned that they were from Senegal, at least three of the crew were 14 years old and they have been at sea for three months at a time. They were deployed to sea each day in their canoes before returning to the mother ship at night to unload fish destined for the EU. The makeshift structure that was used to house up to 200 people in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

In November 2008, EJF assisted the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) Maritime Wing arresting the Korean-flagged Apsari 3 which had 36 crew members on board from Korea, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Crew members from Asia had been recruited in their home countries and flown to the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to meet the vessel when unloading its catch. Their contracts were set for two years with no chance of a visit home – one man had not even yet met his 18-month-old son.

For sleeping quarters, eight men shared a small area of the hold with four “bunks” made up of planks and cardboard. Four would sleep in the windowless space that led directly into the fish hold, while the other four worked their long shift. Sierra Leonean crew members had been picked up in Freetown and taken on without contracts, and were not given cash payment. Instead they were paid in boxes of frozen “trash fish” (caught as by-catch), which they would then have to sell locally. Although they were aware that the vessel, they were working on was depleting local fish stocks and destroying other fishers’ livelihoods, these men felt they had little choice but to take the employment. Some of them who have been investigated, reported that any protest to the captain of the vessel about conditions, pay or treatment would result in immediate termination of the work, and abandonment on the nearest beach.

The bad treatment of crew on board in IUU fishing vessels operating in West Africa was not limited to Marcia 707 and Apsari 3. EJF investigations on board IUU vessels in Sierra Leone and Las Palmas have demonstrated further examples of poor or non-existent safety equipment, inadequate hygiene standards and extremely poor food and accommodation standards21.

South Africa (exploited by Taiwanese):

In 2014, a thorough report6 was published by the International Organization for the migration (IOM), which revealed the exploitation of 31 adult Cambodian fishers (24-54 years old) – However, one service provider reported instances when boys – 16 and 17 years old at the time of recruitment – have been trafficked as well – who have been trafficked to and from South Africa even though the majority of them (17) were promised to work in Japan and only six of them knew they would go to South Africa. Others were told they would be going to other countries (China, Nepal, Singapore).

These men reported that they have being trafficked and exploited alongside fishers from other countries including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Taiwan Province of China and Viet Nam.

The majority of them were formally recruited to work as fishers by Giant Ocean International Fishery Company Limited (“Giant Ocean”), a recruitment company that was legally registered with Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training (MoLVT) although some men only entered into oral agreements. Most of the men were promised a salary of USD 150 per month, along with bonuses for extra work or for catching particular types of fish. Travel arrangements for trafficked Cambodian fishers were made and paid for by the recruitment agency, with men receiving their airline tickets at the airport prior to departure. Some men identified the nationality of the captain on their vessel, although this was not clear in all cases. Most commonly, as reported by those who answered this question, the captain was from either China or Taiwan Province of China, with two captains from Japan.

All Cambodian fishers described very harsh working conditions while on fishing vessels (a minimum of 18 hours a day and approximately half of them reported working 20 hours a day or more) which is characterized as surprising in the report because most of the men were used to hard manual labor at home, in construction and agriculture. An observation that is worth to mentioned came from two older men who lived through the Pol Pot regime103 and drew comparisons between life at that brutal time in Cambodia and work on the fishing vessels:

“I was so happy when I could get back home [to Cambodia]. I still remember the working conditions [on the vessel] were so bad. It was harder than the Pol Pot Regime. Pol Pot gave us enough time to rest, but on the vessel, it was much less.”

&

“Even when we were sick or injured, they still forced us to work… It was more brutal than the Pol Pot regime. Pol Pot gave us time to rest, at least one or half an hour to rest, but this not. [On the fishing vessel] if they saw that we were free, they made us busy. My legs and arms were so sore, so stiff.”

The men were forced to work even when sick, injured or exhausted and were

Physically abused if they were caught resting. Living conditions were substandard – unhealthy, unhygienic and inhumane. Men talked about suffering as a result of a lack of food and lack of potable water (or their poor quality). Living quarters on board the fishing vessels were cramped, with not enough room sometimes for men to lie down.

All but 2 of the 31 Cambodians experienced physical abuse and violence while trafficked on fishing vessels in the oceans around South Africa. As described by them, a wide array of assaults and abuses perpetrated against them – being hit with hands and fists, beaten with batons and bamboo sticks, and attacked with other types of weapons. None of them reported experiencing or witnessing sexual abuse on fishing vessels while they were in the exploitative situation but service providers in Cambodia (which help victims of human trafficking) have assisted a small number of male victims who reported being sexual assaulted while trafficked for fishing and other studies have also found indications that sexual assaults may have taken place.

As they were at sea for months and even years on, they were often unaware that their salaries were not remitted to their family members. Some men described how they never received any payment for the work they did on fishing vessels off the South African coast. In other cases, the men’s salaries were paid to their family in Cambodia in the beginning but then payments ceased (after one to three months).

The men who have been interviewed by IOM identified different assistance needs who operate in Cambodia where they could go to ask for help though they received little to no assistance following their trafficking situation, in spite of having been identified as trafficking victims

by the state and/or NGOs and international organizations. One form of assistance that the men did receive was legal support in terms of filing a complaint against the recruitment agency Giant Ocean although they did not have great expectations of the outcome despite the efforts of the NGO as one of them said.

Luckily with that specific case, as stated in report:

On 29 April 2014, the Phnom Penh Municipal court announced its verdict in the Giant Ocean case – finding the owner of Giant Ocean International Fishery Co. Ltd. guilty of human trafficking and sentencing her to ten years in prison, along with five others from Taiwan Province of China who were involved in the case and tried in absentia. In addition, the judge ordered the traffickers to pay civil prejudice and compensation to 154 civil parties (i.e. trafficked persons and their families). The alleged owner of Giant Ocean, a woman from Taiwan Province of China who was living in Cambodia, fled Cambodia for some time and was only arrested in May 2013 after police found her hiding in Siem Reap Province under an alias. Moreover, the five others from Taiwan Province of China who were tried and convicted in absentia remained at large (at the time of the report). In addition, many men interviewed for this study spoke very specifically about Cambodian nationals who also worked at the Giant Ocean recruitment agency. All men described and named the same three men who recruited them, arranged their documents, trained them and escorted them to the airport at departure. Nonetheless, no Cambodian nationals have been charged in the case against Giant Ocean.

Relationships with family and community members were complicated after the men returned to Cambodia from their trafficking situations. Men described feeling ashamed at returning with no money. Some men felt supported by family and community members, but others struggled when community members were unsympathetic to their situations.”

Indonesia

The case of Indonesia is the only one with direct reaction from the state, after the exploitation of humans working on foreign fishing vessels was revealed in 2014, which lead to the abandonment of 4000 fishermen by foreign vessels, on remote islands of the country, five months after the government passed a moratorium on foreign fishing. The majority of them were from Myanmar on their way to Thailand seeking for work. Others were from Cambodia and some were from the poorest parts of Thailand. IOM was working for years with Indonesian authorities to rescue hundreds of fishermen identified as victims of trafficking. As stated by the Associated Press, some of them were beaten and even locked in cages – were forced to fish, and their catch ended up in the supply chains of American supermarkets and restaurants3. In 2015, Hagar, an Australian based NGO, helped rehabilitate some of the hundreds of boys and young men who were rescued but unfortunately a number of them ended up just going back into the fishing industry as it was the only way they knew how to live21

Thailand

Thailand was the hotspot of human trafficking and forced labor in fishing vessels for years.

In 2013, the finnish organization Finnwatch published a report (only its summary is in English and can be found here) called “Cheap has a high price” and this lead to a 6 years battle between  Thailand’s Natural Fruit Company (the report is not limited in human rights violations in the Fishing industry but also in Natural Fruit Company’s ones) and the activist Andy Hall who was among the authors of the report and residing in Thailand. The company sued him for libel as well as it did against the media agent ‘Al Jazeera’ over their interview about migrant workers’ rights in Thailand. The Thai government supported the legal actions of the Natural fruit company22.

In 2014, a report from the Guardian was published which revealed unimaginable atrocities2. Based on that report, some animation films were created by Kyra Bartley (Slavery in the Thai fishing industry: how workers are being driven to suicideSlavery in the Thai fishing industry: how a worker was tortured and killed). One year later the Guardian went back to reassess the situation which hadn’t changed at all. This is the relevant reportage:

In addition, in 2016 EJF released a mini documentary called THAILAND’S SEAFOOD SLAVES which you can watch here.

In 2018, a report by the HRW (Human Rights Watch) said that rights violations in one of Thailand’s major export industries continued unabated, including forced labor and widespread human trafficking23. In 2015 the European Union imposed a “yellow card” on Thailand under its illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing framework, threatening to ban Thai fisheries imports if the government failed to clean up its fishing industry, including labor rights violations. In addition, the U.S. State Department downgraded in 2014 Thailand to its “tier 3” list of worst offenders – alongside 22 other countries including North Korea, Iran and Central African Republic – in its annual ranking of countries by their counter-trafficking efforts (in 2019 it was in “tier 2”). The Thai government responded back then with a broad program of reforms including new laws to regulate and improve working conditions, documentation and wages for migrant fishermen. Nevertheless, Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said that although some progress had been made, the persistence of trafficking and forced labor on fishing boats illustrated that many of the reforms were cosmetic and forced labor was still a routine.

In January 2019, the Royal Thai Government ratified the ILO Convention on Work in Fishing (C188), becoming the first country in Asia to do so, and following on from the ratification of international treaties in 2018 and early 2019, the European Union removed the Yellow Card against Thailand for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. However, in October 2019, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) suspended US$1.3 billion in preferential tariffs for many Thai imports due to concerns about violations and weak protection of labor rights, particularly freedom of association, collective bargaining and judicial harassment of activists. Thailand had until April 2020 to take steps to have the trade privileges reinstated24.

Apparently, the review of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 which took place 3 years ago, along with Australia’s Modern Slavery Act which came into effect last year (the first statements are due in 2 months) and New South Wales separate’s legislation (which is unsure if it has been in effect yet) had some impact.

On 31 May 2020, Thailand’s Appeals Court ruled in favor of Andy Hall and on 30 June 2020, the Supreme Court of Thailand upheld the Appeals Court’s acquittal. In the meantime, on 7 November 2016, Andy Hall left Thailand due to fear for his safety and the on-going judicial harassment25.

What has happened in Thailand and all this publicity led to the creation of 2 films which were both presented in the 2019 Berlinale film festival. You can get an idea of the films and their directors motivations that lead to their creation, on Al Jazeera’s relevant reportage:

Finally, you can find and download EJF’s 4 reports (regarding the situation in Thailand from 2013 to 2015), here, along with Issara institute & International Justice Mission’s 2017 report here and Freedom Fund’s 2 reports regarding the years 2018-2019 here.

If you would like to support one of the Cambodian survivors, Vannak Anan Prum, who has been rescued in 2011 by LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights organization, after 5 years of forced labor (4 years on a Thai fishing vessel and 1 year at a palm oil plantation on the Malaysian coast), you can purchase his graphic novel (in which he writes about and explicitly draws these horrific experiences) here. He is now planning to make an animated feature based on his memoir, and his next book will be stories of other people’s slavery, including sex trafficking and women sold as brides21.

Ireland

The case of Ireland, has first seen the light of publicity back in 2008, along with Scotland, when reported by the union International Transport Federation (ITF) and the Irish government was accused of “turning a blind eye”, a critic that was of course denied by claiming that they were taking all trafficking concerns seriously. The Irish government was promoting its €850m ($936) a year seafood sector as a vital, sustainable and indigenous part of the economy.

In 2015, the Guardian revealed, after a 12 months investigation, that trafficked migrant workers from Africa and Asia were abused in the Irish fishing industry, more specifically undocumented Ghanaian, Filipino, Egyptian and Indian fishermen are the stuff in boats encountered in ports from Cork to Galway, specialized in fishing prawn and whitefish ,majority of which is exported to supermarkets, restaurants and fish markets across Europe, the Americas and the Far East.

The victims were being paid less than half the Irish minimum wage that would apply if they were legally employed and they were suffering from sleep deprivation. The work was not only physically exhausting and dangerous but it also took a mental toll, as one of them has said to the investigators: Loneliness, isolation, loss of freedom, and constant fear of deportation if you step out of the boat are some of the effects of their exploitation. Some of them jump off the boats and find other vessels to work on where the situation is often better (this is a pattern discovered by the investigators after interviewing several human trafficking victims).

The Guardian’s investigation showed that some boat owners and crewing agencies were smuggling African and Filipino workers into Ireland through entry points at London Heathrow and Belfast airports, and then arranging for them to cross from Northern Ireland into the Republic by road, bypassing Irish immigration controls and they were doing that by exploiting a loophole designed for international merchant shipping8, by giving them transit visas, usually of only 48 hours, in order to pass through a country straight out on to a vessel. However, as explained by a leading maritime immigration law expert, Diego Archer at Fragomen Worldwide: “The purpose of a transit visa in maritime immigration is for entering and leaving a country. It is not for working purposes. Fishing in territorial waters is a work activity, not a transit.”26.

The Guardian identified undocumented migrant workers employed in breach variously of safety, employment and immigration regulations on visits to Dublin’s port of Howth, Galway’s Rossaveel, Donegal’s Killybegs, Wicklow’s Arklow, Wexford’s Kilmore Quay, several of County Cork’s most productive ports including Castletownbere, Union Hall and Kinsale, and County Waterford’s Dunmore East.

This situation came as a result of the fact that local fishermen started in 2008 leaving the tough life at sea to work on construction sites and it became increasingly difficult to find local crew.

An official source said that the authorities and the industry were aware of labor abuses but reluctant to act.

There have even been repeated fatal accidents involving foreign workers on Irish fishing vessels during the decade 1995-2015, with major safety failings and breaches of regulations identified in many cases. One known case is of an Irish trawler that sank in 2012 and lead to the loss of five lives. Of the six crew, four were Egyptian and two, including the skipper, were Irish. The sole survivor was an Egyptian. The boat was licensed to carry 5 people although it was carrying 6. one of the most significant causes is likely to have been the crew’s severe lack of sleep – just four to five hours in the 40 hours the boat was out. And how do Egyptians go all the way to Ireland without papers? They tend to arrive by means of well-worn smuggling routes across the Mediterranean and in trucks across the Continent, as the Guardian informs us.

(Scotland) The investigation’s publication took place almost two years after a police investigation into human trafficking and illegal labor in the Scottish fishing sector led to bring charges against a number of fishing boat skippers who used “slave labor”, a crime that has been initially highlighted by the Scottish Sunday Express in 1998. In 2013, at least 50 people, mostly Filipinos, were being freed from fishing boats. The report by the UK Human Trafficking Centre, stated that officials had encountered more than 2,200 potential victims of exploitation across the British Isles in 2012, among who 74 were discovered working in the fishing sector in south west Scotland. The UK Government has taken steps to end exploitation and in December 2015 launched the Modern Day Slavery Bill (a review of which has been done in 2017 as mentioned and hyperlinked above) which was the first piece of legislation dealing with the matter since the days of the 19th century27.

Following the abovementioned 2015 Guardian investigation, an emergency taskforce was set up by the Irish government to deal with the illegal use of African and Asian migrants by boat owners in the Irish fleet. This led to 500 specially created work permits be given to fishermen from outside the EEA were created, although senior figures in the industry had predicted that, given the labor shortage in the sector, at least 1,000 permits would be required to ensure the protection of all of them28. These permits tie individual workers to specific boats.

Another publication from the Guardian again, just two years ago, revealed that African men were exploited in Irish trawlers29. More specifically, they had experienced verbal or physical abuse, and one in five had experienced racial discrimination.

On the 12th February 2019 Four UN special rapporteurs (modern slavery, trafficking in persons, racial discrimination and human rights) sent a warning letter to the Irish government outlining that Ireland’s permit scheme for migrant workers on its fishing trawlers breaches international human rights law. Later on, a High Court action led to the resolution against the Irish State over migrant fishermen work-permit scheme. The action was brought by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) over a scheme known as the Atypical Working Scheme for Non-EEA crew in the Irish fishing fleet. The ITF claimed the scheme did not protect workers from exploitation and human trafficking but the claims were denied by the state defendants. The matter was briefly mentioned before the minister of Justice, Tony O’Connor at the High Court on the 30th of April 201930. The agreement in which they reached over the mediation on the scheme for employment of non-EEA fishers in parts of the Irish sea-fishing fleet can be found here.

However, Ireland ranked worst in western Europe for tackling human trafficking this year as we see in The Trafficking in Persons Report 2020 that was published by the US Department of State just over a month ago31. This report reduced Ireland’s ranking from tier two to a tier two watchlist which means that the country has not increased its efforts to eliminate trafficking since last year. Other countries in this category include Armenia, Chad, Hong Kong and Romania but Ireland is the only country in western Europe in this watchlist.

Elisabeth Dimitras