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Exploitation in the Global Fishing Industry: New Zealand Researchers and Advocates Secure a Rare and Important Victory

Exploitation in the Global Fishing Industry:
New Zealand Researchers and Advocates Secure a Rare and Important Victory
Anne T. Gallagher


The extent of exploitation within the world’s fishing fleets almost defies description. A recent report by the Nexus Institute and IOM documents the horrific situation of Ukrainian Seafarers “led through a calculated maze into a world of imprisonment at sea, backbreaking labour, sleep deprivation, crippling and untreated illness, and, for the least fortunate, death”. IOM has documented similar abuses of Cambodian and Myanmar migrants working on Thai fishing vessels, some of whom were casually murdered and thrown overboard when their capacity to work was diminished through starvation, overwork and disease. Researchers report that West African children as young as four are being lured away from their parents for a life of hardship and abuse fishing the inland lakes of Ghana.

Fishing is one of the world’s largest and most unregulated industries. Global demand for low-cost seafood, in a situation of fast-depleting fish stocks, is driving operators to look for savings wherever they can. Men and boys desperate for work are the perfect fodder for greedy and dishonest recruiters (often legal employment agencies) who make substantial commissions tricking them into signing false contracts. Once on board, victims typically find that they owe large debts, which can only be paid off through months or years of work. Resistance is almost always futile. The boats are very effective prisons. They are often at sea for months or years at a time, offloading fish onto larger vessels from which they also receive supplies. On those boats that do come into port, the confiscation of identity documents, threats of harm and withholding of wages are usually sufficient to make sure enslaved crew don’t run away.

One particular story of research and activism in this difficult area deserves to be told: not least because it provides an example of how persistence, backed up by reliable information, can force governments to implement real change.

Fishing is a major revenue earner for New Zealand and a number of regulatory innovations have been developed to optimize harvesting of fish stocks in that country’s richly endowed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). One innovation is the foreign charter vessel (FCV): a system whereby foreign vessels, complete with foreign crew, are chartered by New Zealand companies to fish the EEZ on their behalf, with the catch being transferred onshore for processing. In addition to lowering production costs, the use of FCVs enables tariff free entry of the catch into flag state markets. Over the past decade compelling evidence has slowly emerged of forced and exploitative labour amounting to human trafficking onboard FCVs. While isolated cases dating back to the mid-1990s had previously been reported, the issue first came to international attention in August 2010 when the fishing vessel Oyang 70, flagged to the Republic of Korea sank in calm seas 700 km off the New Zealand coast. Five Indonesian fishermen and the Korean captain died. The rescue exposed horrific living and working conditions for the Indonesian crew. Less than a year later seven crew abandoned the Korean-flagged Shin Ji fishing vessel and 32 abandoned the Oyang 75, another Korean-flagged vessel. All 39 Indonesian alleged abuse and under payment or non-payment of wages. Some also alleged physical abuse and sexual harassment. These and other cases make abundantly clear that labor standards for foreign fishing crew, established through a voluntary code of practice adopted by the New Zealand Government in 2006 are being widely flouted.


From an international legal point of view, the jurisdictional complexities of this scenario are formidable: the harmful conduct is apparently taking place outside the territory of the state to which it is most directly linked; by nationals of a second state on vessels flagged to that state; and against nationals of a third state. Certainly any legal responsibility that is successfully established in respect of New Zealand is likely to be shared: (i) with the state of nationality of the vessels concerned, which may also be found to owe a duty under international law to prevent trafficking on its ‘territory’; to prosecute its nationals; and to protect victims and (ii) the state of origin of the victims which may be found to owe a similar range of obligations. There is also a question about involvement and potential responsibility of (or for) non-state actors whose conduct has contributed to the harm. This group could include the New Zealand entities to whom fishing permits are issued and who contract the services of FCVs; recruitment agencies in countries of origin; and even the seafood processing, export and retail corporations within and beyond New Zealand whose supply chain is tainted by forced or exploitative labor.

Little has been done to unravel these complexities and to allocate responsibility fairly among the various involved States. However, in the case of New Zealand, external pressure (in the form of the US TIP Reports) and internal activism, fueled by intense media attention and highly visible civil society groups, has begun to have a significant impact. After denying the existence of a problem for several years, the Government of New Zealand initiated a parliamentary inquiry into the operation of FCVs in 2011. On the basis of its findings  the Government recently announced that from 2016, all commercial fishing vessels operating in New Zealand waters will need to be registered as New Zealand ships and carry the New Zealand flag. The reflagging of these vessels is critical, as it will operate to bring foreign crew within New Zealand laws including those related to employment and maritime safety. NGOs are now working to supplement this change through measures such as the elaboration of certification standards that will support a strengthened compliance system.

These developments are significant and deserve to be applauded. They provide a rare and welcome example of strong research creating the basis for effective advocacy that in turn leads to real changes in laws and policies. However, we should not be under any illusion that reforms in New Zealand will result in a decrease of exploitation within the global fishing industry. Most likely, the foreign vessels engaged in slavery-like practices will move elsewhere if the costs of increased regulation justify such a move. In this area as in many others we are confronted with the limits of national action. International cooperation to end exploitation of human beings for profit is not a luxury but a necessary precondition of any truly effective response.

Related posts:

  1. Used, Abused, Arrested and Deported: Extending Immigration Benefits to Protect the Victims of Trafficking and to Secure the Prosecution of Traffickers by Dina Haynes
  2. Exploitation Nation: The Thin and Grey Legal Lines Between Trafficked Persons and Abused Migrant Laborers by Dina Haynes
  3. The Right to an Effective Remedy for Victims of Trafficking in Persons: A Survey of International Law and Policy by Anne Gallagher