NAIROBI, Nov 15 (IPS) — It is a terrifying life experience, cut off from the world and trapped in forced labour aboard fishing vessels, often in high seas or seas beyond the territorial waters of any state. The fishers are isolated under hazardous and horrific working conditions under limited regulatory oversight. More than 128,000 fishers were trapped in forced labour aboard fishing vessels in 2021 alone.
A new report by the Financial Transparency Coalition – a group of 11 NGOs from across the world, including Transparency International and Tax Justice Network has taken a deep dive into distant waters, exposing a web of ruthless players behind fisheries labour abuses in total disregard of labour and human rights. One in four fishing vessels accused of forced labour is owned by European companies, a quarter of them flagged to China, while one-fifth carried flags of convenience with lax controls, financial secrecy, and low or non-existent taxes.
“Forced labor aboard commercial fishing vessels is a human rights crisis, affecting more than 100,000 fishers every year, leading to horrific abuses and even deaths among fishers who mainly come from global South regions like south-east Asia and Africa. Yet those owning these vessels mostly hide behind complex, cross-jurisdictional corporate structures ranging from shell companies to opaque joint ventures,” says Matti Kohonen, executive director of the Financial Transparency Coalition.
Titled Dark webs: uncovering those behind forced labour on fishing fleets – the report is the most extensive analysis of forced labour abuses in commercial fishing vessels to date. It found companies from just five countries – China, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and Spain – own almost two-thirds of accused vessels for which legal ownership data is available.
An estimated 22.5 percent of industrial and semi-industrial fishing vessels accused of forced labour were owned by European companies, topped by Spain, Russia, and UK firms. The report warns that beneficial ownership information is rarely if ever, requested by most countries when registering vessels or requesting fishing licenses, meaning that those ultimately responsible for the abuses are not detected and punished.
“Forced abuse in commercial fishing vessels is widespread and is often linked to other violations such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which generates more than USD 11.4 billion a year in illicit financial flows from Africa alone every year. Yet financial secrecy still surrounds the fishing sector, and there’s little political will to improve financial transparency that’s needed to target those ultimately responsible for these crimes,” says Alfonso Daniels, the lead author of the report.
The report’s highlights include revelations that more than 40 percent of commercial vessels accused of forced labour operated in Asia, followed by Africa with 21 percent, 14 percent in Europe and 11 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Additionally, 475 commercial vessels accused of being involved in labour and human rights violations between January 2010 and May 2023 were identified. The geographical location of these vessels where they operated was identified for 63 percent of the cases, totalling 298 vessels.
Of these, 42.28 percent or 128 vessels for which location data for the offences is available, were found in Asia, followed by Africa with 63 vessels or 21.14 percent of the total, and Europe has 13.76 percent of the total or 41 vessels. LAC has 11.07 percent or 33 vessels, and Oceania has 7.72 percent or 23 vessels, with additional vessels identified in other regions such as the United States.
Overall, the top 10 companies own one in nine vessels accused of forced labour. Of these, seven are from China — some partly owned by the Chinese government, two from South Korea and one from Russia. Indonesia emerged as the global hotspot for forced labour cases, with nearly one-fourth of detected vessels operating in its waters. In addition, 45 percent of accused vessels operated or were detected in just five countries: Indonesia, Ireland, Uruguay, Somalia, and Thailand.
“Forced labour is a serious concern for fishers around the world who frequently suffer abuse and exploitation. European companies and consumers aren’t immune from this, as global seafood supply chains being long and opaque. We call on all companies to conduct proper and meaningful human rights due diligence. The EU Commission current proposal to ban products of forced labour from entering the European market also needs to be urgently approved and put into practice,” says Rossen Karavatchev, Fisheries Coordinator of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which supported this report.
Against this backdrop, the Financial Transparency Coalition calls for five key measures to protect fishers and enhance transparency in the sector, including an urgent need to improve publicly available vessel information. Stressing that, before awarding a fishing license or authorisation, flag and coastal States should require information on the managers, operators and beneficial owners of the vessel. In addition, unified and publicly available lists of vessels accused of forced labour and IUU fishing should be created.
Further highlighting the need to “create publicly accessible beneficial ownership registries: Unless there is publicly available beneficial ownership information, states will only end up sanctioning or fining the vessel’s captain, crew or the vessel itself, without being able to pursue the legal and beneficial owners who are profiting from these crimes.”
Additionally, identify forced labour and IUU fishing as predicate offences for money laundering purposes and that fisheries-related crimes should also be considered “predicate offences” for money laundering as it is an illegal activity that generates proceeds of crime that are then laundered and therefore treated as illicit financial flows.
Importantly, the Coalition emphasizes that States should ratify key international fisheries treaties and conventions to prevent forced labour and IUU fishing. This includes the International Labor Organization (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention of 2007, whose objective is to ensure that fishers have decent conditions of work on board fishing vessels and has only been ratified by 21 countries, and the Cape Town Agreement of 2012.
Further calling for the expansion of extractive industry reporting to include fisheries so that fisheries are included as an extractive industry in key initiatives, including the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) and other global as well as regional initiatives concerning regulation and transparency of extractive industries.
IPS UN Bureau Report