Tricked, trapped and trafficked, workers on fishing vessels often slip under the radar of the protection offered by labour and related laws. Human trafficking occurs when workers are tricked into working on fishing vessels: their wages are unpaid, they live and work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions and they are far from land for months or years at a time with no opportunity for escape. Harsh and violent treatment of crew has been reported as widespread.
“The six crew members of the fishing vessel Vicmar A …are on board the ship in subhuman conditions, without light, water or food on board; some of them are in poor health with no medical assistance. Safety on board the ship… is also compromised after a long period of neglect, and several months’ wages are owed. Employment contracts are also abusive and contrary to the law of (the flag state).”
This report, in Naucher Global in March 2015, four months after the vessel was abandoned in Equatorial Guinea, is just one glimpse into the terrifying reality of life onboard IUU fishing vessels.
Recruitment agencies, brokers and fishing operators deceive and abduct victims in order to get hold of crew – there’s a shortage of labour and few would willingly choose to work on vessels which are old, poorly maintained and have little or no safety equipment – typical features of IUU boats as they are likely to be forfeited if caught and so are treated as disposable. Usually sailing under a Flag of Convenience, international regulations concerning safety and working conditions can be ignored with impunity.
Deception is used to trick victims, who are often poorly educated or illiterate. Promises are made about work and pay, and contracts are issued, but these are often changed once the worker has flown to a foreign port. Fees mount up; recruitment fees, travel fees, even deductions for food, and these debts are transferred to the captain once the crew member is on board, turning him into a bonded labourer. Pay and passports are often withheld until a voyage has been completed, trapping crew members on board, even supposing they do reach port – but transhipment using reefer vessels allows ships to remain at sea for long periods of time, meaning there’s no escape for months or even years at a time.
Once at sea the realities of the working and living conditions become apparent − these are often poor and inhuman with limited food and only seawater for washing and laundry. With a minimum of 18 hour days and little pay, workers are often subject to violence and abuse. There are reports of physical injuries and deaths, suggestions that victims have been tossed overboard when sick, injured or dead and that crew that fall overboard are sometimes not rescued.
The identification of trafficked fishers is a challenge:
- IUU vessels may seldom visit port and prefer ‘Ports of Convenience’ with lax control measures;
- international security regulations require foreign crew to stay on board a vessel when in port;
- the welfare of fishers usually falls outside of the mandate of fisheries inspectors;
- limited or no access of crew to authorities and a lack of trust in them;
- lack of training and capacity of authorities and particularly the police;
- belief that trafficking only relates to sexual exploitation;
- language barriers;
- trafficking victims avoid identification due to shame or fear of blacklisting.
When no longer useful vessels and/or crew may simply be abandoned, leaving crew stranded without the means to make their way home, reliant on charity, moneylenders or local people, and vulnerable to extortion by local officials. Once home, reintegration is difficult, involving health related, psychological and social challenges.
Human trafficking is a crime, but as fishermen pass through multiple jurisdictions, prosecuting this crime can be difficult and targeting senior crew for their role in trafficking does not get to the root of the problem – the criminal fishing operators hidden behind complex corporate structures designed to conceal their identity.
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