Myths of Modern Day Slavery in the Seafood Industry

Created on Thursday, 08 September 2016


Photo credit: Ethan Lucas

When it comes to human trafficking and modern day slavery, myths are unfortunately quite common. In addition to the predominance of these myths, it is challenging for experts to agree on the global scope of slavery. Estimates of the number of people subjected to human trafficking and forced labor range from 20 million (an estimate of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2012) to 46 million (an estimate of Walk Free Foundation (WFF) in 2016).

While it is difficult to definitively know how many people are subjected to modern day slavery, the practice has been documented by a variety of sources including peer reviewed articles, comprehensive reports, and news stories. In the past few years, journalists have detailed instances of slavery in seafood supply chains, from fishing vessels to processing facilities. Given FishWise’s focus on socially responsible business practices, this blog post will focus on debunking a few myths of slavery and human trafficking specific to seafood.

Myth #1 – Slavery is extinct
Although multiple organizations are dedicated to fighting human trafficking and unfair labor conditions, slavery is often perceived as a problem of the past. However, millions of people are enslaved globally. In the fishing industry, forced labor can include deceptive recruiting, excessive workdays, pay withholding, homicide, child labor, and other issues in all steps of supply chains. In two case studies focused on Thailand, researchers found approximately 20% of workers on fishing boats and 10% of workers in the processing industry worked in conditions indicative of forced or coerced labor. The industry is recognizing these challenges and working to meet them. Companies like Nestle are now setting expectations of their supply chains that include responsible sourcing goals.

Myth #2 – Trafficking always includes physical force or confinement
Migrant workers can fall victim to debt bondage, where a worker attempts to pay off a fee for the cost of working in a different country. Debt bondage has been documented in the Thai fishing industry with migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. However, change is on the water. To reduce worker vulnerability, Thai Union has announced that it will eliminate recruitment fees for its workers as one of its steps towards a more ethical migrant worker recruitment policy.

Myth #3 – Prosecution and fines aren’t necessary
Remediation and survivor services are very important, however it is also important to change the drivers of modern day slavery to ensure that human trafficking comes at a high cost. Currently, assuming a high 20% chance of being apprehended for illegal fishing, fishing fines would need to be increased twenty-fourfold for the cost to equal the benefits. Although not through the use of fines, U.S. legislation has evolved to prevent human trafficking in supply chains. In February 2016, Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act which closed a consumptive demand loophole which had previously allowed products made with forced labor to enter into the U.S. market. Moving forward, efforts to prevent products associated with slavery from U.S. businesses’ supply chains will have more legislative teeth than before.

With human trafficking and modern day slavery occurring in the seafood industry, it’s important to understand how trafficking is perceived around the globe and what companies can do to prevent these unjust practices. To minimize the risk of these abuses occurring in its supply chains, businesses can start by establishing codes of conduct and communicating with its partners about expectations for its supply chains. While these are big issues to tackle, there are also many resources available.

For more information on human rights in the seafood industry, please see the FishWise human rights resources page.