Under-Reporting of Slavery and Abuse in Pacific Fisheries

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Published Oct 4, 2015 10:03 PM by Wendy Laursen

“Would you buy a can of tuna that you knew had been caught by slaves and canned by slaves?” asked Dr Patricia Kailola, acting CEO of Pacific Dialogue, at Pacific Tuna Forum in September 2015.

Despite a lack of reporting, human rights issues, as reported elsewhere, occur in the Pacific, she says, including trickery by recruiting agents, original contracts replaced by fraudulent contracts and/or in language not understood by crewmen, papers held by senior crew, debt bondage (crew obliged to ‘pay off’ the cost of their travel and papers), lack of adequate first aid equipment, lack of adequate food, very long working hours (18 hours or more per day), no days off, beatings for not understanding instructions, non-payment of wages, inadequate sleeping areas and absence of clean drinking water.

Deaths at sea are caused by health factors, accidents with fishing gear, inadequate safety gear and by murder. Kailola cites some examples that have occurred over the last few years:

•    A Tuvaluan court found two Fijians guilty of murder of a senior crew member; “Justice Ward said the Fijians resented the fact that they were being fed with bait fish and boiled rice while the Chinese crew members and the captain were fed better food … [and] for being sworn at often” and that the men “had repeatedly suffered … unpleasant treatment from the deceased for a considerable time previously and had a degree of accumulated resentment.”
•    In August 2013, an Indonesian man died after “going berserk” on a Japanese longliner in Tahitian waters. He had been at sea for more than 18 months without having contact with his family.
•    A Papua New Guinea fisheries observer, Charles Lasisi, was murdered several years ago. His remains were recovered west of Wewak (north-western PNG). His legs and body were bound with chains.

Increasingly in recent years, reports are being published about poor conditions and abuse of crew on fishing vessels, primarily in South-east Asia, said Kailola in a discussion paper. Fewer published observations have been about the working conditions in fish processing plants. 

“The remarkable feature of all of these reports, is that not one of them reports on, or refers to (beyond a mention), crew conditions in the Pacific Islands region – home to the largest tuna fishery in the world and perhaps, the world’s largest high seas fishing fleet,” she said.

Kailola highlighted that international conventions on labor rights are practically impossible to enforce on the high seas. Additionally, the Maritime Labour Convention does not cover seafarers working on fishing vessels and some conventions specific to fishing vessels have not yet entered into force due to the lack of minimum requisite ratifications by countries.

“Despite the Pacific Ocean’s size, the tuna fishery it supports cannot for much longer continue without scrutiny. Three resources comprise this fishery, not two: the fish, the vessels, and the manpower (on boats, and on shore). The industry’s willingness to recognize this third resource can be the missing key to resource sustainability and national food security. Attention to “people power” can reduce effort in the fishery and hence support resource sustainability,” says Kailola.

Pacific Dialogue is an NGO working in the fields of human rights and conflict resolution. Several non-government organizations including the International Collective in
Support of Fish Workers (ICSF), Human Rights at Sea (HRAS), Slave Free Seas (SFS),
EmancipAsia, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, and the Environmental Justice Foundation involve themselves with crew conditions on fishing vessels, as do some international organizations such as ILO, IMO and the International Transport Workers Federation.

The paper is available here.