The Southeast Asian Fishing Industry and Modern Slavery

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

As industrial fishing fleets are pushed further out to sea, supply chain transparency becomes more opaque and human rights abuses increase.

The fishing industry in Southeast Asia is rife with human rights abuses. A Greenpeace Southeast Asia report shows what life is like for migrant fishermen, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, who work onboard foreign-owned distant water fleets. The fishermen endure forced labor, mistreatment, and other human rights abuses.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia found 13 foreign fishing vessels where 34 Indonesian migrants reported conditions suggesting signs of forced labor. One man worked on a Taiwanese-owned longliner called Zhong Da 2 and testified about the abuses he suffered while onboard. “I was forced to work without enough rest and food. I was exhausted and could not continue my duty,” he said.

A man working onboard a Taiwanese-owned fishing vessel called Chin Chun 12 said he did not receive any salary for the first six months. Another man working on the Taiwanese fishing vessel Lien Yi Hsing 12 claimed he only received $50 for the first four months.

As of June 2019, there were around 21,994 migrant fishermen from Indonesia and 7,730 from the Philippines, according to the Taiwan Fisheries Agency, working on Taiwanese distant water fishing vessels. Indonesia and the Philippines represent most of the migrant fishermen working on Taiwan’s distant water fleets, which is a $2 billion industry and one of the top five distant water fishing fleets on the high seas.

Fishing vessels are forced to go further out to sea due to the dwindling fish population, which causes higher operation costs and increases the chances that migrant fishermen will experience human rights violations. The crimes migrant fishermen allege usually occur in the open sea and make them harder to prove.

“One migrant fisher suffering is one too many. It is absolutely vital that national laws securing migrant fishers’ rights are fully enforced, or, where they are absent, must be developed as soon as possible,” said Arifsyah Nasution, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

The tuna industry is filled with human rights abuse

Tuna is popular among Americans, particularly the canned kind. The Pacific has some of the world’s largest tuna fisheries, providing nearly 60 percent of the world’s tuna catch, worth $22 billion in 2016. Human rights abuses are common, including forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor. “Modern slavery is endemic in this industry, where the tuna supply chain is remote, complex and opaque,” according to a report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

Twenty canned tuna companies and supermarkets completed a survey on their approach to human rights challenges. What they found is that there is “a pattern of policy over practice.” Although two-thirds of the companies surveyed have adopted corporate human rights policies, they are taking little or no action to actually implement them. However, all of the 20 companies have made a public commitment to respect human rights, and 54 percent (19 companies) reported requiring their immediate suppliers to prohibit slavery.

The companies surveyed need to work on their supply chains. Only 20 percent of them reported that they have fully mapped their supply chains. Only three companies have slavery prohibitions throughout their supply chain. Most tuna companies do not extend their complaints system to workers in their supply chains. While 60 percent of companies surveyed have a grievance mechanism for reporting complaints and cases of alleged human rights abuse, only six of them make it available to supply chain workers.

What you can do

You may be wondering what you can do to ensure that the fish you buy is not connected to slavery? Buy fish sourced from U.S. waters. Do not buy fish from a foreign country. And say goodbye to canned tuna. Buy fresh or frozen fish. 

Comments (2)
No. 1-2

Is it also means that they have to drink sea water like in this news video?

A video from MBC News (South Korea) that reported the death of Indonesia fishermen in China ship


This behavior of ship owners is of course very disturbing and I would certainly like to believe that these are isolated cases, that is, it is somewhat individual and is based on the poor and their disenfranchisement. Of course, today it is much more profitable to use a convenient service in Singapore and work absolutely calmly.

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