Asian fishing ships suspected of slavery

Many Asian-flagged vessels are engaged in forced labor, according to a recent study.

Last month, a study published by the Environmental Market Solutions Lab and other scientists revealed the existence and extensive scale of forced slave labor in the fishing industry. By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Out of 16,000 vessels from all around the world, the study found that longliners flagged to Asian countries, including China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, are at a high risk of being engaged in forced labor.

A consultant from the Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a non-profit organization that participated in the study, says that forced labor in fisheries is a challenge that can be solved through the help of international society.

26 percent of Asian ships are suspected of slavery

According to the data, between 14 to 26 percent of studied vessels were labeled to be at high risk. Furthermore, between 57,000 to 100,000 people were on those vessels. This meant many of them could have been forced to work during the voyage.

The study’s result also pointed out that China-flagged squid jiggers and longliners, as well as longliners flagged to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan were most frequently found to be at high risk of forced labor.

GFW recorded and tracked the behavior of 16,261 industrial longliner, squid jigger, and trawler fishing vessels from 2012 to 2018, using satellite technology and machine learning.  The team uploaded 22 confirmed cases of forced labor for their artificial intelligence system to study. 

The research team labeled “positive” on vessels that showed signals of forced labor. The signals, 27 in total, included: longer voyage durations; longer fishing hours per day; and the number of Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmission gaps being greater than 24 hours. 

A lack of basic human rights driven by greed

“Many labor rights on land are not applied in the same way in fisheries because the transgressions happen in distant waters,” Kim Tae-sang, a GFW consultant told Maritime Fairtrade. “Forced labor in fisheries is against basic human rights.”

Kim said that the problem of forced labor has continued in deep-sea fishery, in international waters in particular, because there is not much profit for business owners and they need to cut cost. Also, some governments, such as China, try to help the deep-sea fishery business by giving subsidies to them.

But even with government’s subsidy, deep-sea fishery vessels cannot earn sufficient profit because for one, the cost of fuel is too high. Moreover, there is no guarantee that they will catch enough fish to cover that cost.

“That’s why some vessels engaged in forced labor, giving a pittance or no payment at all to their crewmates,” Kim said.

In the case of South Korea, Kim said that cultural attributes actually played a role in maintaining the status quo of forced labor in fisheries. “Fishermen in South Korea tend to be authoritarian, as most of them are from the older generation,” he said.

“Young people don’t take the job because fishing is difficult. The people in the business, therefore, still have old-fashioned, authoritative mindsets. They are used to giving orders and forcing others to do something.”

China and Taiwan are latecomers to the fishing trade, which make them hungrier and more competitive in order to reap a portion of the declining seafood.  “The amount of maritime resource is decreasing, while the number of fishing vessels is increasing. So, in order to reduce cost, I think that’s why there are many China- and Taiwan-flagged vessels engaging in forced labor,” Kim said. 

Countermeasures against slavery 

Some countries and non-governmental organizations have started to request others to impose more regulations on forced labor in the deep-sea fishing industry.

For example, in 2013, the United States and the European Union issued a request to South Korea, asking it to take measures in the combat against illegal fishing, including forced labor. 

“South Korea has shown some efforts to renovate the fishing industry since then,” Kim said. The number of pelagic fishing vessels in South Korea has also dropped from 342 in 2013 to 211 in 2018, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

Kim also emphasizes the importance of transparency in the deep-sea fishery to track and solve the forced labor problem.

For example, the GFW created a real-time, interactive map of vessels based on AIS signals. “With this map, we would be able to detect who’s doing what, including forced labor, more easily,” he said. 

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Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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