Thursday, June 28, 2012

Slavery on Fishing Boats

The fish you have for dinner may have been caught by slave labor. Slavery became illegal in most of the world during the 1800s, but it never went away, and is now expanding. One of the industries that uses slave labor is fishing, especially by Asian companies.

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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

The world’s oceans are being poisoned. Some of the plastic litter is visible, such as in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There, plastics and other debris are trapped by the “gyres” or currents of the North Pacific. Some plastics float while others sink.

Even worse are the plastic particles that are not visible. Much of the plastic tossed into the ocean breaks down into molecules, both of the plastic material and also of toxic chemicals. The particles are eaten by fish and other animals. The plastics then enter the food chain for fish, birds, turtles - and human beings. Worse yet, the plastic molecules absorb pollutants, so the food chain gets poisoned. The pollutants become ever more concentrated as they go up the food chain of contaminated animals. Pollution from eating fish becomes a source of diseases such as cancer.

The oceanic pollution comes from both ships and land sources. Boats and ships have long been using the ocean as a dump. Land sources come from untreated trash. Even when sewage is normally treated, during big rains some systems cannot process the trash, and the plastics are spewed into the ocean.

Implementing an international oceanic treaty, since 1989 the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL) prohibits U.S. vessels or land-based activities from dumping plastics and other trash materials into the ocean. The law is enforced by the Coast Guard, but there is still much evasion.

A complete ban on plastics is now impossible, since plastics have become essential in global production and consumption. It is sufficient to prevent plastics from continuing to poison the world’s bodies of water.

Manufacturers are now producing photodegradable plastics that break down in sunlight. But it is not enough to break up the plastics - they need to be rendered harmless. Biodegradable plastics made from starch are better, as they let microbes eat up the plastic.

Beach cleanups help reduce the plastics problem, and there are also people cleaning up the plastics in the oceans. Environmentally conscious consumers are now avoiding plastic bags, or recycling them, which is a good start, but an effective solution requires legal remedies.

The two policy options to limit the plastics dumping are 1) command and control regulations; and 2) pollution charges. Some local governments are implementing regulations banning plastic bags and styrofoam containers. Such restrictions and commands are not effective unless done on a large scale, and that encounters resistance from the public. Severe regulations smack of the nanny state, of big government micro-managing individual choice

A better policy is to eliminate pollution through full-cost market prices. The problem is that consumers are not paying the social cost of their purchased products. They pay the cost of the inputs, but not the pollution cost. In effect, consumers are subsidized when they don’t pay the full cost. A pollution charge should be applied, equal to the social cost of the actual and potential pollution associated with the product. Some cities have implemented this by charging a few cents for the use of a plastic bag. Pollution charges should be combined with education about why the tax or fee or charge is being levied.

Reducing pollution via the price system is better than via regulations, because this allows consumers as well as producers to respond according to their own costs and benefits. Some people may get great benefit from using plastic bags, while others have little loss from using cloth bags that can be cleaned and used again. If one brings one’s own plastic bag, there would be no charge.

There should also be much stronger enforcement of laws prohibiting dumping. The fine should equal the amount of damage divided by the probability of catching the culprit. For example, if the social cost of tossing a bag is $1, and the probability of getting caught is one percent, then the fine should be $100.

Enforcement of pollution laws is now much more feasible with the use of drone aircraft. Drones can be sent above ships and fishing boats to photograph dumping. State laws should also impose fines on cities with inadequate sewage treatment.

There needs to be a global environmental treaty that prevents subsidies to pollution with charges for all dumping into waters, soils, and the air. Unfortunately, what is being implemented instead are “cap and trade” pseudo-markets that invite financial manipulation, subsidize areas and firms that sell credits, and end up with permit prices that don’t reflect the social costs. “Green” fees or charges would bring revenue to governments that could be used to reduce taxes on goods and wages - a “green tax shift” that would help both the economy and the environment.

Alas, politicians today are not even discussing the death of the oceans. The focus is short term - on economic recovery. Voters are confronted by parties providing the bad alternatives of greater budget deficits or higher taxes on investment and production. The effective solution for both the economy and the environment is an “optimality tax shift,” replacing all current taxes with payments that remove the two big implicit toxic subsidies - to pollution and to land value. The only effective way to have a sustainable economy and planet is public revenue from pollution and land value. That is not a opinion, but the plain truth.