Pope Francis recently called for an international effort to fight trafficking and human rights issues in the fishing industry. Why does the fishing industry have so many problems with forced labor, slavery, and human rights abuse?


Fishing is dangerous work with few protections

Working in the fishery industry is naturally more dangerous than working in a comfortable office. But while we all know this, we do not understand the true dangers that affect workers in the industry globally. The fishing industry takes people out of their towns, cities and villages and requires them to work remotely, away from oversight and regulation. And the seasonal nature of many species means that companies need to squeeze out as much productivity as possible in a fishing season. This leads to a huge amount of work in a short period of time, and when so much money is on the line companies push their workers past the limit. This can mean continuing fishing operations in storms and harsh weather, leaving fishers exposed to the elements.

In the open ocean, fishers have less power. There are informal working practices that can lead to abuse by the companies that employ fishers. The work has little guarantees and is flexible in terms of time, giving the employers all of the power.

In a global industry, there is a race to the bottom in terms of prices. It is hard to imagine an industry more global than the fishing industry. In order to cut costs and increase profits, some vessels have deplorable living conditions for fishers. When you combine this with an informal work agreement, you can have fishers living in unsafe conditions for much longer than they agreed to initially.

And that is not the worst of it. Slavery, human trafficking, and forced child labor all plague the fishing industry.

The UN even states that there is instances of required drug use in workers, as they are given amphetamines to keep up with the inhumane level of work.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin calls the human rights abuse within the global fishing industry a “chain of exploitation.” So how are international governments reacting?

The ILO Convention will be essential to spearheading change in the future. The convention, written in 2007, has just now received the 10th ratification required to go into force a year from now as Lithuania signed onto the agreement.

The ILO Convention is designed to improve working conditions on small and large fishing vessels. These vessels will have to meet higher standards for living conditions for longer term trips.

International response is complex and slow

This also showcases the sluggish speed that international reactions work at. In a ten year span, most democratic nations will undergo political shifts. Priorities change for governments, and conventions can become outdated before they are even put into effect.

It will be over a decade between the time the Convention was first proposed and when it finally comes into force.

It is not just small vessels that have problems with forced labor. Cardinal Parolin had the following to say on the subject of massive fishing vessels that have the capability to stay out at sea for years at a time that use forced labor.

“For the crews it means living in degrading conditions and in confined spaces, in circumstances that are tantamount to detention, with their documents confiscated and, in only a few cases, returned after long periods of forced and underpaid labour.”

With the global nature of the fishing industry, international agreements and treaties are required to protect fishers. But is there any way for these agreements to work in a reasonable time frame? And what is happening to vulnerable people in the industry in the ten years it can take for a Convention to come into force?

Warren Ransom

I have always been fascinated by the creation and culture of different foods, particularly sushi and sashimi in the modern era of Japanese cuisine. I am a classically trained chef and sushi connoisseur, also having operated a food service company and enjoy investigating and experimenting with food around the world.

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