SLAVERY AT SEA: An Overview of the UK Fishing Industry and a Model Approach for Identifying Human Rights Abuses in the Supply Chain

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are approximately 60 million people globally working in the primary sector of capture fisheries and aquaculture. In an industry estimated to be worth US$150 billion, the standard of working and living conditions enjoyed by the fishermen who brave this hazardous and challenging profession vary widely. Safety and welfare issues in the fishing industry are of the utmost concern and international measures are underway to address systemic deficiencies where they exist. However, eliminating forced labour and child labour, particularly among the migrant fishermen workforce, is a challenge of equal concern to the industry today.

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is often a breeding ground for modern slavery and other forms of human rights abuse. For example, Thailand has experienced unprecedented levels of slavery, human trafficking, bonded labour, and corruption within its fishing industry. But to isolate the problem of modern slavery and human rights abuses to IUU fishing in Southeast Asia is to look at the issue too narrowly. Indeed, despite the threat of sanctions, it is often the untempered demand for fish products in developed countries that create the conditions ripe for abuse elsewhere. The problem is never fully addressed by the current standards regime. Rather, the problem is simply forced to relocate. Developed economies are therefore at risk of falling foul of their responsibilities without closer scrutiny and better management of the supply chain – even in countries where the fishing takes place closer to home.

The revelation

Human Rights at Sea International (HRASi) conducted research into non-European Economic Area (EEA) workers in the Northern Ireland (NI) fisheries in January 2017. The research was commissioned by Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation (ANIFPO) which represents its members across 52 fishing vessels. The aim of the research was to gain a deeper understanding of the path to recruitment, current working and living conditions, and the general welfare of non-EEA fishermen.

Non-EEA fishermen in NI come from countries as far as the Philippines, Ghana and Sri Lanka. Up until now, little has really been known about this cohort of fishermen. They make-up a sizeable proportion of the NI fisheries workforce. They make a vital contribution to the local economy. But, in the light of incidences of slavery and human trafficking in the Irish fisheries, it was felt that in regard to non-EEA fishermen, greater scrutiny of the supply chain was necessary. As part of their approach to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), ANIFPO sought to look at the matter in more detail. The findings were, in general, positive. No indications of slavery or human trafficking were detected. However, there are acknowledged limitations to such research. That said, as a discovery exercise, the model is one that pushes boundaries in the fishing industry. Similar work by other Producers Organisations in the UK is anticipated, especially in Scotland where the reliance on non-EEA workers is significantly high.

The future

Concurrently, such work in relation to supply chain management will complement the efforts underway in relation to the ILO Work in Fishing Convention (No.188). The effects of this Convention are yet to be felt. However, the expectation is that ILO 188 will constitute a sea-change moment for the industry, particularly in respect of vessel owners and their management systems. The Convention will bring fishermen’s rights into line with their counterparts in the merchant shipping industry. And, once audited and enforced, it will also help provide assurances to producers, retailers, and consumers that the fish they use, sell and buy are sourced legally and ethically by well treated fishermen.

A copy of the HRASi report into non-EEA fishermen in the NI fishing industry along with an industry response paper can be found at the following link:


Other reports on this item include:
  1. Fishing News magazine:
  2. The Maritime Executive:

Written by Daniel Shepherd, Director at Human Rights at Sea International Ltd (HRASi).

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