Overfishing and destructive fishing practices are top of mind when conscientious consumers approach seafood counters at their local grocery store. A plethora of eco-rating and certification systems are meant to help them make more sustainable choices. But what many people don’t realize is that while these popular eco-logos may protect the planet, most don’t protect against human rights violations.
“Until recently, gender equity, child labor, fair trade, and human rights in the fishery sector have been disconnected from, and perhaps even overshadowed by, environmental concerns,” states a recent report from FishWise. “However, issues of seafood sustainability and human rights are inextricably linked, not only from an ethical standpoint, but also from a practical one.”
Titled Trafficked: Human Rights Abuses in the Seafood Industry (PDF), the FishWise white paper documents “the pervasiveness of human trafficking, force labor, child labor and egregious health and safety violations” in the seafood industry, especially in the developing world. The problem has been exacerbated by corrupt officials; fishing vessels in international waters flying “flags of convenience” to get around stricter regulations; the globalization of supply chains; illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing; and the increased number and mobility of migrant workers from poor countries. Victims on fishing vessels are typically men and boys between the age of 15 and 50. On shore, victims typically are female fish plant workers.
Statistics on the scale of the problem are hard to come by; however, case studies and news reports “cite examples of fraudulent and deceptive recruiting, 18-20 hour workdays, homicide, sexual abuse, child labor, physical and mental abuse, abandonment, refusal of fair and promised pay, health and safety violations, and the removal or withholding of identifying documents (i.e. passports).”
The worst offending countries tend to be in the Greater Mekong region, including Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Lao and China. In Thailand, for example, 90 percent of the processing workforce is composed of impoverished migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Lao and Cambodia.
The white paper lists a number of recommendations to prevent human rights abuses and improve conditions for fish harvesters and shore workers. Chief among them is traceability.
“The need to improve transparency and traceability in the fishing industry is a common theme echoed by those concerned with improving seafarer well-being and achieving seafood sustainability,” states the white paper. “Implementing full traceability—every step in the supply chain having the correct procedures and protocols in place to trace receipt, processing, and shipping of seafood—is the first step in eliminating illegal fishing, human rights abuses, and seafood mislabeling and fraud. With full supply chain traceability it should be easier to identify and remove seafood associated with these concerns from supply chains and, ideally, prevent it from entering the supply chain in the first place.”
In the New Year, stay tuned for an exciting announcement from ThisFish about bringing traceability to small artisanal fisheries and the developing world.