Slavery on Fishing Boats
The living conditions of fishing-boat slaves is as bad as in the worst of 19th-century slavery. The slaves work all day every day, and live in small hot rooms plagued with crawling and flying insects. Old rusted vessels move along the coast of Africa engaged in pirate fishing, driving the fish to extinction. The slaves in the Asian-owned boats come from Africa and from eastern Asia. Some of the slaves are kept at sea far from shore, while others are paid in fish rejected by the market, which they sell in isolated places on shore.
These boats compound slave labor with environmental destruction. Bottom trawlers drag chains along the ocean bottom, scooping up fish and shrimp along with endangered coral. The boats can fish for years without being detected. Some of the slaves were once fishermen, and cannot fish any more because their former fishing places have become depleted, so they join these fishing companies, not knowing the horrific conditions on board, and are then unable to escape.
Under international law, the responsibility for ships rests with the country under which the ship is registered. The pirate ships register with countries that have little control. If the country does seek to prevent fishing abuses, the ship changes its country registration. Even when the shipping captains are fined, the amount is around $30,000 to $100,000, a few weeks of profit, not enough to stop their exploitation of workers and the life of the sea.
In the European Union, it is illegal to import fish that have not been certified as legal by the country by which the ship is registered. But many of the countries under whose flag the boats operate don’t police the vessels. Also, pirate fish get smuggled into licensed boats.
Many of the slaves are men captured from villages in Cambodia and Burma. Thai fishing captains buy them from human traffickers. Thai fishing companies sell seafood around the world, much of which is caught using these slaves. Slaves who try to escape are beaten or killed.
Some Thai government officials deny that this is happening, even while they are reported to be colluding with the traffickers. The government of Thailand does not require captains to register their crew. The U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has received reports that thousands of people are being caught and enslaved, and the State Department has put Thailand on its watch list for human trafficking.
Some of the slaves in the ships registered by South Korea and other Asian countries are workers who signed up to work on fishing boats. They are pushed into signing “contracts” that they have not read, and then become fishing slaves.
The United Nations uses the Vienna/Geneva Conventions description of slavery. The 1926 Slavery Convention's definition is, “Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” This definition was broadened by the ILO Convention of 1930 to include forced or compulsory labor: "...all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily." Since there are about 30 million slaves around the world today, there is little international enforcement of the human right to be free from slavery.
The United States imports about 85 percent of its seafood. There is a “Free World” app for iPhone and Android phones that enables the user to get information about slavery in a supply chain. But there needs to be stronger legal enforcement of the laws prohibiting slavery. A step towards the reduction of slave-made fish was taken by the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, which as of Jan. 1, 2012, requires retailers with global sales greater than$100 million, that do business in the state, to document their efforts to monitor and combat slavery in their supply chains.
Most people think they are against slavery, yet it continues because of the ignorance and apathy that allows greed to steal the property of others. The complete liberation of labor requires full economic opportunity. Truly free labor keeps its full earnings, with no arbitrary restrictions on self-employment and enterprise. Full opportunity also requires an equal and sustainable sharing of the earths natural resources. That this seems utopian shows how far popular thought is itself a slave of doctrines that favor coercion. Ultimately it is human beliefs that enslave the world.