Episode 2: How can data used to trace seafood also fight human and labor abuses in this industry?
With demand for seafood increasing, the stakes are higher for those recruited into this industry. The strong correlation between illegal fishing and seafood worker exploitation and abuse is forcing the environmental and labor communities to come together. That’s a good thing. But what makes it easier to track fish than those who catch it? We delve into the why with two human rights experts, and how shiny-sounding solutions and different approaches to tackling the same problem demonstrate why untraditional collaborations could save the day.
To hear insight from Judy Gearhart and Rainer Braun on how traceability data could benefit seafood workers, listen to SALT’s podcast here:
(also found on Spotify)
All right. Hello. I’m Amy West with the Seafood Alliance for legality and traceability. SALT, and this is a Dash of SALT. I’m here with two amazing people today who work in the field of human and labor rights. Judy Gearhart from American University’s Accountability Research Center and Rainer Braun who teaches human rights and political economy at Columbia University. Together, they form a wealth of knowledge that helps us really comprehend the human and labor rights challenges that the seafood industry faces. And that’s what we’re going to dive into today. Welcome Judy and Rainer.
Thanks for having us.
So this is a big topic, but I guess some helpful background about this problem is something we haven’t established before, but that there is a well-established correlation between illegal fishing and forced labor. But why are human and labor rights a problem in the seafood industry? Why are they even an element?
The ocean is an important source of income. Nearly 60 million people work in fisheries. An estimated 200 million jobs directly or indirectly depend on the industry. So it’s a critically important industry, and it is an incredibly important food source.
If fish is the most traded food commodities worldwide, 54% of that trade comes from developing countries. What’s happening in seafood is that the demand for fish, both in poor countries and industrialized countries is driving fishing vessels further and further to sea. The same time that the fishing vessels are going further out to sea to find fish because of the depleted stocks, they’re also needing to cut their costs.
Corresponding to that, you have a growing number of migrant workers in the world who are unfortunately ripe for exploitation. So there’s this deep correlation between overfishing, and the exploitation of workers at sea. So you have desperate migrant workers who are looking for jobs who end up in the seafood industry, often hired indirectly through manning agencies. They’re often indebted when they first get the job. They often don’t have information about the job and are hoodwinked into it. That results in fishers who are out to sea for as much as a decade at a time.
This is really among the most nefarious of forced labor situations that we have in the world today.
The estimate is that 25,000 fishermen die every year. Get lost on the sea. It’s a horrible number. clearly this is not going to be solved by having some inspectors going on three vessels in some port somewhere. This is a problem that needs a huge intervention, and it’s going to be hard, but the fishermen obviously need protection against a very abusive workplace. And we haven’t even started to scratch the surface on that.
And what’s the challenge in solving it?
In order to solve the issue of forced labor at sea and broader human rights abuses, it’s important to think about the complexity of putting these workers in vulnerable situations and the legal enabling environment that helps those workers to claim their rights. That really starts with core labor rights: so the right to non-discrimination and the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, for example. Those are what we call enabling rights.
In the seafood industry in many cases, migrant workers are limited in their ability to organize or bargain collectively or connect with the trade union or connect with other human rights organizations who are able to connect them to legal remedy.
It’s also about making sure that that fisher is able to report abuse when it’s happening, and able to get compensation when they are not adequately paid for their work.
Looking at what’s the role of the manning agency, what’s the role of the protection organizations, the trade unions, and other human rights organizations, become equally important to policing for the egregious abuses such as forced labor and human trafficking.
It sounds very complex where many entities would have to be involved to solve this.
Yes. There’s just no silver bullet approach to human rights violations. We always need to keep in mind that human rights violations exist because of power imbalances. Somebody is vulnerable for some reason, and somebody else has a responsibility for making that person better off to realize their rights. It’s not just the idea of avoiding problems, but it’s really the idea of improving livelihoods, including in the sense of what Judy says, “Enabling people to take action on behalf of themselves.” That’s hard, but that’s what the goal is of human rights.
In order to get there, you will need to have many responsible parties work together. In the case of seafood on the high seas, it’s not even just governments, which are the traditional duty bearers. Because on the high sea, there is no state. It’s the common heritage of mankind. It’s everybody’s so to speak. So you have a lack of accountability, which is a big problem. And at the same time, you have a need for many actors coming together.
So the workers themselves need a voice. Their communities need a voice. The communities in the ports, on the coast need a voice. And that is hard. That’s a very, very tricky coordination issue to tackle.
I think we’re hopeful as we see a growing number of organizations, especially from the environmental justice community taking up the need to address fisher’s rights. The correlation that I talked about previously between overfishing and the exploitation of fishers, and the fact that the more fishers who are exploitable actually enables overfishing— that dynamic, the sort of symbiotic relationship between those two problems is something that is bringing the environmental, and labor communities together in a positive way. And those who are tracing the depletion of fish stocks, they have an opportunity to start talking with those who are tracing the abuse of fishers. So there is a growing number of conversations around IUU, and forced labor.
Well, you talk about the environmental justice groups, and coming together on this issue. What have you found to be a challenge to foster those alliances, so that they talk to each other and work together?
It’s tricky. Not because not everybody wants the same thing, but different groups go about it in different ways. And human rights is an interesting field, and often a misunderstood field. Human rights really require us to think about what created the problems, and who can do something about it. Human rights are focused on the idea of creating structures, or rearranging structures that have created the power imbalances in the first place, sometimes even regardless of the outcome. So if it means in order to realize human rights that maybe fewer fish get caught or fewer people have jobs, sometimes that is a price to be paid in order to realize human rights.
At least that this is one perspective on human rights. There’s a different perspective, which is more of a policing kind: that all you need is a form of regulation that makes sure that the immediate violation doesn’t take place. And of course, we want that too, but in the long run that will not solve the problems. But for the environmental community, it seems to be much more about the outcome. You want to know what fish is caught where and where does it go.
And that is, of course, an important approach to it, but from a human rights perspective, the people we talk to about labor rights and our perspective— Judy and mine— I think is fair to say is that is by itself not enough. You cannot just look at the immediate problem. You need to look at how can you create an environment where stakeholders have voice. They have input and some form of control. It cannot just be about a passive participation, but rather you want stakeholders being part of systems that are set up in order to make the policies better.
That is a long-term approach, and it’s much more incremental, and slow than I think most environmental people think about these problems. We would like faster action to reduce human rights violations as well. But we just know that in order to do something sustainably about human rights, that has never happened overnight.
Amy, in one way, it’s sort of a vicious irony that you would think it’s easier to monitor the abuses of fishers than a fish. Because fishers have voices, they speak, they talk. Fish don’t talk. But unfortunately the fishers are also in a situation where they can’t use that voice. They’re repressed, they’re hiding. They have to protect their families. They either have to make sure the checks coming in, or maybe their family is equally indebted. So there are many reasons that they’re not using their voice.
And that’s why the process involved in supporting them, and enabling them to access support and remedy is so important.
Then why are we thinking that traceability can help solve the human rights problem?
The whole reason why we’re working on this, because we’re invited by SALT to help think through what are the human rights perspectives on electronic traceability, right? What can data bring to this, and what data can bring to this is, of course, some form of action in the long run. Intervention, regulation, risk mitigation, where are the biggest problems so that the scarce resources of regulation can be directed where they’re needed the most. That is a promise in all of this. At the same time, the data by itself will not solve the problems.
And we need to make sure that there is not a false sense of compliance. Not a false sense of progress by data being moved from ports or from vessels to buying agents, or market states saying that in the end, everything is good because we have the crew manifest, and it seems like there’s some policies that are being followed. If the reality on the vessel is not being checked, we cannot make sure that there’s actual improvement going to take place.
Right. So collecting all this data is well and good, but not if it’s not being reviewed, verified to actually make anything happen?
So the idea of data being collected is a starting point.
It’s an important starting point, but that data being collected from a human rights perspective needs to be connected to intervention by those who can do something about the reality on the vessel. And ideally it needs to be connected to workers agency: that workers themselves will be able to use these data system to give input into them and to verify whether or not the data being collected is correct. The reason why workers need agency —and this is really the underlying reason for having human rights in the first place, and everybody agrees on that— human rights exist to realize the inherent dignity in each individual human being. Anytime that somebody is suppressed in a way that their individuality is taken away, that they don’t have agency, they don’t have say over their lives, their wishes, their dreams, their bodies, whatever you want to say, we’re dealing with a human rights problem.
And those men on boats on the high seas are not in control over their own choices. They are often in situation of forced labor. Their agency of saying no to a job is being taken away. And that is a fundamental human rights problem. The idea for human rights intervention is to bring powerful actors, such as governments, multi-lateral agencies, and corporations together to start creating policies and oversight mechanisms, to improve conduct on boats.
So for example, a lot of different sustainable fisheries groups are now collecting data that have to do with where the vessels have gone, where the vessels are registered, what kind of catch they’ve brought in. And also they’re collecting crew manifests. But they’re not necessarily checking the crew manifests, nor do they have a mechanism to follow up if a crew manifest shows that a vessel returned missing fishers. So there’s information coming in that could be useful to worker rights advocates. And it’s not necessarily part of the system of programs to protect the fishers. So there’s some connecting of efforts that needs to happen.
So really for the environmental community to work with the labor rights community, they need to understand more fully the power dynamics, and the need for legal drivers to ensure these rights.
Yeah. So as you pointed out, a part of SALT’s mission is to encourage groups, to adopt digital traceability systems for their seafood, and to do it in a way that includes social responsibility. So what can companies or other groups do to start addressing this intersection of needs?
Corporations can make a big contribution towards this is to just identifying who’s doing what, what boat is out there for what time catching, what fish, and ideally even with how many crewmen on board. If we can just start to get a sense of who is out there, what flag are they flying this vessel under? And what ports
are they going to? We start to have a first sense of accountability. Who’s responsible for the decisions on that vessel?
And luckily, since we now have the United Nations guiding principles on human rights and business, we can turn to corporations directly, to businesses directly and say, “Look, there’s something happening, and you have a level of power. You have a potential of influence over what’s going on there, and we can identify through this documentation that you are connected to this catch. So you must act now.” That is a big difference from having action on the high seas, and nobody even knows where the vessel belongs.
As far as solving this problem, given the complexity and given the intersectionality of IUU and fisher’s rights abuses. The key thing that needs to happen is collaboration. It needs to happen at several levels. Companies, for their part, can start by engaging a bit more enthusiastically, both with government and human rights and environmental organizations. And within the governments themselves, at the international level and the national level, there needs to be more collaboration.
For example, between the fisheries ministry, the labor ministry and the Navy. Those different bodies need to come together. Already the Food and Agricultural Organization, the International Labor Organization, and the International Maritime Organization, those are three international bodies that correspond, they are starting to come together and collaborate more.
For private sector actors, the key piece here is really sharing information and being fully collaborative. What’s happened over the past 20 years in supply chain monitoring of labor rights abuses is a lot of private sector certification programs have cropped up, and they don’t actually share the information they have with the government. This is a problem. If you’re monitoring and you’re finding human rights abuses, or you’re finding risk of human rights abuses, you need to be sharing that with the government bodies that are in a place to enforce the law, or the organizations that are in a place to help the abused access remedy.
And I will say this is especially important when we’re talking about forced labor, and human trafficking. Because it’s very rare that you’re actually going to find somebody in a cage or shackled. Really what you’re looking for is a risk-based assessment. You have to sort of, pun intended, close the net around the potential cases because you will very rarely find the “smoking gun.” You’ll need to sort of assess the situation and then get that fisher who may be vulnerable into the safe space they need to be able to talk about the risks that they’re facing, and the potential abuse.
So what I am hearing is that we need to look beyond electronic traceability; that maybe we need to reframe how we talk about it for seafood workers?
So electronic traceability is a solution and people want solutions. And so it becomes a sort of magnet for everyone’s attention. And as much as it can be a good piece of the solution, because it’s a concrete thing, it can distract people’s attention away from the harder-to-solve processes.
One thing that we need to keep in mind is that this idea of electronic data gathering on what happens on boats out on the high sea is just a tool. It’s a contribution to a much larger effort in order to know what’s going on on vessels.
And—and this is where Judy and I think there is a lot of promise in the long run— it should also allow for an inclusion of stakeholders for how the systems that collect the data, analyze the data, and apply the – stakeholders ought to be involved in the governance of that data management.
Do you guys think we’re headed in the right direction for solving these issues, or at least attempting to establish ways to solve them?
I think in recognizing that electronic traceability is one part of the solution, advocates for electronic traceability need to also see that the oversight of these systems that they’re building has a lot to do with pushing good governance. They have the potential to set the example and to advocate for good governance. And that’s critical. It’s critical for making the electronic traceability work well. It’s also key because if you set up an oversight body that includes trade unions, you begin to address fisher’s rights just by them being part of the good governance of the program.
The great potential here is that we’ve got environmentalists who are concerned about fish stocks talking in earnest about fisher’s rights. Really they’ve expanded the definition of sustainability to include fisher’s rights, and they’re understanding the need to bring in the human rights community, and the trade unions who represent fishers.
One way in which we see a big potential for the electronic documentation is that it brings actors together, and that bringing actors together over the data is a very important step towards better management of the high seas and fisheries.
So that’s probably a good stopping point and really insightful dialogue on this topic….Thank you so much for talking with me today from your home studio.
Thank you, Amy. It was really good to join you.
Yes. Thank you for having us.
This podcast is made possible by the generous support of the American people through (USAID) the United States Agency for International Development The contents are the responsibility of SALT and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.