We document human rights abuses and modern day slavery in the seafood sector and campaign for international support from governments and industry.
It is estimated that as many as 27 million men, women and children are currently victims of human trafficking around the world (US Department of State, TIP report, 2012).
Human trafficking, forced and child labour and human rights abuses are widespread in Asia and Africa’s marine fisheries. Quite simply, fleets operating many miles from coasts are ‘under the radar’, with no checks on their crews and how they are treated - there is no one to ensure that human rights are not abused. On land, seafood processors may be more likely to undergo spot-checks, but exploitative labour practices are still prevalent.
Victims of trafficking often include migrants who are forced to undertake hard physical work, and are held against their will at sea for months or years at a time. Intimidation, brutality and even murder are used to coerce these modern day slaves into work.
Since 2010, EJF has investigated and documented labour abuses in the seafood sector, working first in West Africa and producing our All At Sea report and more recently in Asia, producing reports and films on the issues and working with policymakers and industry towards effective action to end these violations. Working with opinion formers including international media outlets such as The Guardian, we can help reach consumers and the public to secure their support, help them avoid ‘slavefood’ and make their voices heard.
1. EJF’s campaign
Our campaign will:
- Undertake investigations and document the government actions needed to end violations.
- Engage with governments internationally, persuading them to use their leverage to ensure the introduction of new controls to eradicate slavery from seafood, including through national legislation, to end modern-day slavery in supply chains.
- Secure industry commitments to ensure that seafood produced by trafficked or forced labour cannot enter their supply chain.
- Build public support for slave-free seafood and consumer commitments to buy sustainable and ethically-produced seafood.
- Provide training and support to grassroots organisations working to document abuses in the seafood sector and providing support to migrants and victims of trafficking.
2. Fisheries in Thailand
Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world, with exports valued at $7.3 billion in 2011; the EU imported more than $1.15 billion (€835.5 million) worth of seafood from Thailand in 2012. But the seafood sector stands accused of endemic human rights violations, from the shrimp ‘peeling sheds’ to the ocean-going fishing boats, crewed by Burmese and Cambodian victims of trafficking who are treated as modern-day slaves. ‘Trash fish’ caught by these vessels can make its way into fishmeal that is used in Thailand’s shrimp farms, with the resulting shrimp becoming part of a supply chain destined for lucrative export markets in Asia, the USA and Europe.
59% of workers surveyed had witnessed murder of a crew member.
Since 2012, EJF has conducted in-country investigations and documented abuses within Thailand’s shrimp industry. Beginning with the pre-processing facilities, also known as ‘peeling sheds’, investigators interviewed current and former employees and the local and international NGOs who work to protect them. Our research revealed evidence of human trafficking and serious human rights abuses and labour violations. Our teams revealed instances of child labour as well as exploitative, abusive and violent conditions for workers forced to work excessive hours in sub-standard conditions.
The resulting report and film revealed powerful testimonies of migrant workers trafficked to Thailand and into bonded labour, details of the endemic labour abuses in shrimp processing, the extent of the problem and the influence of corruption by officials.
The Thai fishing industry remains heavily reliant on trafficked and forced labour. As boat operators have looked to cut costs, working conditions and wages have suffered, forcing some employers to rely on criminal trafficking networks to meet the labour shortfall. Migrants from neighbouring countries eager to find employment in Thailand fall prey to criminal networks, are duped onto fishing vessels and forced to pay off the debt owed to the traffickers.
Between January 2013 and February 2014, the Myanmar Association of Thailand was involved in 29 individual rescue operations, rescuing a total of 201 trafficked migrants from Thai fishing vessels.
In 2013, EJF released a report, Sold to The Sea, which collated previous reports and focused on the case of 14 Burmese men rescued from a port of Kantang after being trafficked and forced to work up to 20 hours per day with little or no pay. Detained on board and subject to physical abuse and threats of violence, all had been at sea for at least five months. The rescued men recounted witnessing the torture and murder of fellow crew members and the victims' bodies being thrown into the sea.
The Thai Government pledged progress on its efforts to combat trafficking, but a year later, our Slavery At Sea report revealed new evidence of human trafficking and the routine use of violence in the Thai fishing industry along with the failure of the Thai Government to identify and prosecute criminals, corrupt officials and unscrupulous business operators, or to enforce measures to regulate fishing fleets and recruitment practices.
Myo Min Naing, 21, reported that he was promised a “good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand” before being trafficked into the country. He was transported with five others in a marked police car, driven by men in plain clothes, before being forced onto a fishing vessel in Chonburi province. He was compelled to work on the boat for ten months without pay before he managed to escape. He and his fellow crew suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf:
“I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored and he hit me from behind. It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious and he smashed my face against the ice.”
-Myo Min Naing, 21
3. Activities and success stories
In March 2014, EJF's evidence on human trafficking and human rights abuses in Thailand's fishing industry was presented to the US Department of State. The EJF team met with key figures in the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and the Justice Department to discuss the evidence in our Slavery at Sea report.
Separate meetings were held with interested Senators and Congresspeople to share our Slavery at Sea report, featuring testimonies from victims of trafficking and slavery in the Thai seafood sector, ahead of the finalisation of the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
In April 2014, EJF's Executive Director Steve Trent spoke at the Guardian Global Supply Chains summit event attended by major UK business leaders to discuss the need for transparency in supply chains to ensure human rights abuses do not continue unchecked.
In June 2014, EJF and others successfully secured the downgrading of Thailand to Tier 3 – the lowest ranking possible – in the US Department of State’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. This is the pre-eminent global report focusing on human trafficking and Tier 3 is reserved for countries judged as not having made sufficient progress in tackling human trafficking or making significant efforts to do so. Thailand is now on the same tier as Central African Republic, Iran, Kuwait, Libya and North Korea.
In June 2014, the Guardian newspaper ran a major exposé in print and online revealing further evidence of human rights abuses in Thai fisheries. EJF contributed to the Guardian investigation over a 12-month period and our Executive Director Steve Trent appeared in a film feature offering advice on how to ensure consumers aren't purchasing Thai seafood that may be linked to human rights abuses (see below). 96,000 people watched and shared the Guardian expose films and there were over 1,000 comments left by readers.
59,000 people signed our petition calling for modern slavery to be eradicated for seafood supply chains.
Major French retailer Carrefour stopped sourcing shrimp from supplied CP Foods pending rigorous supply chain checks.
In summer 2013, an EU Parliamentary question was submitted by the European Parliament PECH Committee on Fisheries about slavery in seafood supply chains, and the EU Commission replied that: "The Commission is aware of the report of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) on Thailand's fisheries sector. The EU attaches great importance to including provisions on trade and sustainable development in the negotiation of the EU-Thailand Free Trade Agreement."
In March 2014, a resolution by the European Parliament called for trade agreements with Thailand to be conditional on the Thai Government resolving human trafficking and human rights abuses in fisheries. Free trade talks between the EU and Thailand were suspended in June 2014, shortly after a military coup in Thailand and the country's downgrade to Tier 3 in the TIP report.
4. Bangladesh’s slave shrimp
The work in Thailand built on previous work in Africa and in Bangladesh, where in 2012, EJF investigated labour and human rights violations in the Bangladesh shrimp industry, tracing the entire shrimp supply chain from fry collection in the dangerous waters of the Bay of Bengal, through to shrimp farming and finally to factory processing.
Through filmed interviews with fry collectors, shrimp farmers, depot owners and processing plant workers, EJF identified exploitative working conditions - forced and child labour, withholding of pay, excessively low wages, restricted union activities, verbal abuse, health and safety violations, and gender discrimination.
Our Impossibly Cheap: Abuse and Injustice in Bangladesh's Shrimp Industry report and film call for industry, consumers and policymakers to call for fundamental change to the structure, management and regulation of the shrimp industry in Bangladesh.