Posted by Brett Dodge

Beyond Thailand: Why the subject of decent work in fishing will be with us for a long time

Concerns about labour abuses in the seafood industry have been voiced on and off by media and civil society advocacy groups for over a decade now. But it was the chronic patterns of forced and trafficked labour revealed en masse in reports by journalists and NGOs in 2014 in Thailand’s wild caught fishing, aquaculture feed, and seafood processing sectors that provoked the industry into action.

With much of that initial media heat now subsided, a recognition has set in that industry must do more to face up to the risks and control its social impacts. What the Thai scandal revealed was that the human rights challenges in fishing are critical and deeply entrenched. The broader awareness it spawned has revealed that similar risks exist in many other fisheries across the globe including in the developed world. Not surprisingly, the many notable public, private and NGO initiatives aimed at improving labour and human rights in seafood have some way to go before they can start claiming ‘victory’ over modern slavery or other labour abuses in fishing.

The emerging lessons coming out of Thailand suggest two things: 1) the fishing industry has unique challenges that we don’t currently have all the tools to address, and 2) the solutions will require a lot of creativity and adaptation if they are to be applied at scale across the industry globally. That, I’m afraid, is likely to be a long slog.

“Why are labour rights such a big challenge in fishing?”

Fishing is important for development – it directly sustains livelihoods for around 37 million workers on 4.6 million vessels in both small scale and commercial fishing operations and indirectly for more still. Isolated working environments, weak law enforcement and other economic or ecological factors influence situations of labour abuse across many industries. But the bad news for fishers is that unlike land-based industries, these risks are intrinsic to the sector itself, not just features of just a bad variant of fishing work.

Fishers work in the middle of the ocean, far away from police, communities, trade unions, journalists and NGOs (with a few very notable exceptions). They are dependent on their employers for everything from food and clothing to even their own health. Work in fishing necessarily involves isolation and restriction of movement and owing to its nature will probably involve long working hours/overtime, hardship living conditions and an intensely subordinate working relationship due to the command hierarchy of a seafaring vessel. That’s already five out of 11 of the ILO’s ‘indicators of forced labour’ simply by virtue of working on any typical fishing vessel!

Secondly, the economic pressures create a persistent source of risk for workers entering the sector.  Retail demand is generating a continuous and intense demand for fish.. Additionally, as many popular fish stocks decline, vessels need to venture further afield in search of catches that are becoming progressively less and less certain, and this puts pressure on a fishing boat’s only real variable cost – labour. It’s a classic race to the bottom. Tracking vessels’ activity and enforcing labour laws on board is difficult for maritime regulators. Some exceptionally unscrupulous boat owners and labor agents have linked up with criminal trafficking webs to take advantage of this regulatory gap and are able to go after the risky fish cheaply, using undocumented migrant labourers saddled with recruitment debts – putting those who cannot match this exploitative business model in an uncompetitive position.

“Why don’t we just cut out the bad guys?”

That is certainly the goal of both industry and civil society but at present it is nearly impossible for most seafood businesses to know for certain who the bad guys are. Supply chain visibility is poor. Except for a few vertically integrated supply chains, actors in the seafood trade from boat owners to traders, brokers, processors and buyers all keep each other at least at arms’ length. That, together with complicated business and vessel ownership structures and a chronic problem of incorporation of illegally caught fish into mainstream supply chains serves to systematically obscure product origins from buyers. Even fish suppliers – let alone retailers or hotels – cannot be certain who was responsible for catching all of their fish, and it is not for lack of trying either. Many businesses simply do not know where their risks are.

In fact, there is quite a lot is happening in terms of new technological traceability tools developed to identify actors in the custody chain from importers back to origin. But for all the promise that technology holds, traceability applications, blockchains and vessel tracking tools won’t save the day on their own. As important as it is to track products and vessels and know where risks are, is knowing what they are.

Changing the industry culture – opacity to openness

To do this, companies need to know at least something about what goes on at sea. But short of installing video surveillance in every cabin on every vessel, we will probably never fully know what really happens out there. We rely on snippets and snapshots of information but even these are hard to come by because industry has always tended towards opacity.

To state the obvious, in order improve the openness of the industry, globally, it needs a culture change. Workers, captains and other actors in the supply chain need to become comfortable speaking openly about working conditions in the fishing sector. Otherwise, opacity and silence will continue to protect labour abusers. The best that anyone can do at this point is to try to get access – to open communication channels, listen and facilitate dialogues as much as possible to close this information gap. On the understanding that these can’t yet offer a complete picture of the situation on vessels there are some notable examples of tools and methods developed to open some visibility at vessel level. These include:

  • Large seafood company Thai Union is working with local NGO Migrant Workers Rights Network (yes, Andy Hall) to understand and address the cultural roots of trafficking and unethical recruitment of migrants based on the workers’ perspectives. More questions asked and answered about labour management can only help to open the sector up.
  • The Issara Institute operates a multi-lingual mobile phone based hotline workers can use to file complaints. They can also undertake dangerous investigative tasks at sea which would be ordinarily impossible to verify.
  • Certifiers and workplace monitoring schemes can also help to improve the responsiveness of the industry to questions about social impact. Programmes like the Marine Stewardship Council (social and labour content in development), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s Feed Standard, and the expected future global rollout of a currently UK-focused vessel-level certification scheme, the Responsible Fishing Scheme from Seafish lay the groundwork for getting a better handle on social issues on vessels by inspecting workplaces and lending some of the heavy lifting to fisheries improvement projects. These won’t be a one-stop fix-all, but they can help get the ball rolling. And fortunately, they have a global scope.
Collaboration – everyone needs to be part of the solution

If there is a common theme for these it’s collaboration. All of these tools and initiatives depend on multiple actors. Collaborative initiatives  are where the creative thinking around solutions will continue to be developed but for them to be applied at scale, especially globally, more types of actors and more industry participants with greater buying power need to be involved in them.

These sorts of collaborations are key to closing the governance gap. On the one hand, private sector initiatives don’t have much of a chance of succeeding without strong maritime governance frameworks. The other side of the coin is that national governments and international agencies (like the ILO) could really use some market power and influence to bring new initiatives and standards to scale across incredibly vast industries with thousands of actors.

There are leading examples of collaborative private-sector engagement on human rights from organizations like Seafish in the UK. But except for a few other leading retailers, suppliers and hotels, this sort of collaboration is not yet the norm. Global labour risks in fishing are still not recognized as the priority issues they are.

If in doubt as to whether seafood is a risk in your supply chain, start by asking these questions:

  • Do you know where all of your fish comes from?
  • Do you know who owns the vessels?
  • Do you know who recruits the workers?
  • If yes to all: are you sure?

If the answer to any of these is no, then labour abuse in the sector is almost certainly one of your key risks and probably will be for a good time to come. The good news is there is plenty of room for you at the table.