Slavery in the Fishing Industry

Thai fishing boatWe’ve written in the past about just how miserable it is to work in a slaughterhouse, given all the abuses and injuries that take place there. This article takes a look at worker conditions at the slaughterhouse’s counterpart on the world’s oceans and in seafood processing plants.

Most of us live and spend almost all of our time on land. All too often, what goes on in the ocean is out of our sight and therefore out of mind. But the problems and abuses on fishing vessels and at seafood processing plants are just as bad or even worse than in land-based slaughterhouses, and many of the workers are nearly slaves, often literally sold by human traffickers. You may have thought that slavery was a thing of the past – think again!

Meet Vannak Prum from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Fisherman like Prum are often sold into bondage. Once aboard a fishing vessel, they report 20-hour days under mind-numbing conditions, with minimal fresh food or water, no medicine apart from aspirin, cramped bunks, unsafe conditions and the relentless smell of fish. It gets worse. Beatings and even murder takes place far too often. The United Nations Inter Agency Project on Human Trafficking interviewed Burmese fishermen, such as Prum, on Thai boats and found that 59 percent said they witnessed a murder by their captain.

Prum was sold onto a Thai fishing boat the length of a basketball court, where he worked in tight conditions with 10 other men. “I didn’t get paid,” he says. “I remained in the middle of the sea and worked day and night.” Many fishermen complain that captains often give workers drugs, mainly amphetamines, so they will keep working through the night. Prum says he was kept on the boat for three years without ever being able to go ashore even once.

Unfortunately the problem is widespread. For instance, Yusril is an Indonesian fisherman on a South-Korean-owned boat. On March 25, 2011, Yusril became a near slave. Yusril, and several shipmates who corroborated his story, was held aboard a fishing boat where Indonesian fishermen were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the ship’s operators. Their overlords told them not to complain or fight back, or else they would be sent home where their agents would hurt them. Such coerced labor is modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime. Yusril’s story, and that of other survivors of abuse, reveals how the $85 billion global fishing industry profits from the labor of people forced to work for little or no pay, often under the threat of violence. They often compelled the Indonesian fishermen to work without proper safety equipment for up to 30 hours straight, swearing at them if they so much as asked for coffee or a bathroom break. Even when fishermen were not hauling catches, 16-hour workdays were standard.

Worker abuse is not confined to fishing boats. At an age when she should have been in a classroom, Thazin Mon discovered her knack for peeling shrimp. To help support her Burmese migrant family, the 14-year-old pulled 16-hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than $3 a day. “I am uneducated, so I work. I have to work bravely,” she says. Although she was the best peeler in the factory, speed was never high enough. Mon was beaten if she slowed down, she said, and when she asked for a day off to rest hands swollen with infection, her boss kicked her and threatened rape. Problems for Burmese migrants typically start as soon as they link up with brokers who promise steady work and a decent salary, only to sell them into a nearly inescapable cycle of debt bondage.

While not nearly as bad as overseas operations, the domestic seafood industry can also mistreat workers. For instance, C.J.’s Seafood, based in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, was recently suspended by a major retailer after a monitoring group found that its managers had made employees work 24-hour shifts, locked some workers in the plant, and threatened employees with violence against them and their relatives in Mexico, to discourage them from complaining to authorities.

While human rights and worker standards are often required by some retailers, verification is often difficult or impossible. Fishing boats work independently at sea and are not easy to regulate or inspect, allowing abuses to take place. So no-one really knows the full extent of the problem. Seafood processing plants are more susceptible to inspection, but with so many located in foreign lands, and with high levels of corruption surrounding them, the true extent of the land-based worker abuse is also hard to ascertain. To make matters even worse the workers are often much too afraid to complain themselves.

The British organization, the Environmental Justice Foundation, sums the matter up well when they state, “Slavery is with us today, with tens of thousands of people made victims every year – commonly the poorest and most vulnerable individuals. Nowhere is this more true than in particular sections of the global fishing industry…Many of us are supporting the perpetrators of slavery, trafficking in persons, forced and bonded labour ourselves – most often unwittingly – through our food purchasing decisions. Seafood we consume today is being caught or processed by these modern-day slaves. Violence, forced detention, and even murder are commonplace, while those perpetrating these crimes all too often go unpunished.”

Fishing and seafooding, including aquiculture, are leading causes of ecological destruction and pollution. Far from sustainable, the world’s fisheries are in very serious decline. Scientists have now determined that fish indeed feel pain, not to mention that sensitive sea mammals such as dolphins, seals and porpoises often get caught in industrial nets. With many of the health claims for fish not panning out, and given the high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol in both fish and seafood, the vegetarian advantage becomes more evident than ever. If you’re looking for fish and seafood alternatives, why not check out some of the new companies, such as Sophie’s Vegan Seafood, that are producing high quality alternatives, and receiving rave reviews.  You’ll be doing both human and sea creature alike a world of good.