The fishing industry wreaks havoc on our oceans, pulling upwards of 2.7 trillion individuals from the oceans every year, and having catastrophic consequences for our precious environment. The fishing industry’s dark underbelly doesn’t end at it’s environmental and animal exploitation, humans too suffer immensely within this industry that is shrouded in secrecy.

Forced labour, physical punishment and deliberate killing of workers have all been reported to occur in some sectors of the fishing industry. Far out of sight and mind from law enforcement, workers are extremely vulnerable at sea, and these human rights abuses are sadly rife throughout the industry. Those who consume ‘seafood’ products may be unknowingly supporting a continued cycle of human abuse and exploitation at sea.

The crew on the Thai fishing boat included two dozen Cambodian boys, some as young as 15. Credit: Adam Dean for The New York Times

One report that spanned across 13 countries including the US and some from the EU, uncovered issues of debt bondage, inadequate water and food aboard fishing vessels, filthy living conditions and physical and sexual assault. 

Often unknowing people seeking labouring work are promised good prospects in dry fishing and are then sold into slave labour. One survivor reported expecting to be home after two months, however, he didn’t see his family again for 5 years. Vannak Anan Prum was promised good money working in dry fishing by a middle-man, but was sold into slave labour on a trawling vessel. Prum reports being forced to work around the clock, only allocated four hours to sleep in each twenty four hour period and daily violence aboard the ship to keep those enslaved in line. He said people would disappear from the boat without warning, likely killed and thrown into the ocean – he recalled witnessing one worker being beheaded with a cleaver.

A Cambodian migrant fisherman in the South China Sea. Credit: Adam Dean for The New York Times

The wider world is implicated in this cycle of slavery and abuse, with some of the fish brought by this forced labour being sold in pet food as well as used as cheap feed in the pig, poultry and prawn farming sectors.

Globalisation has meant companies can rely upon entangled international supply chains that allow cheaper labour. As a result many of these human rights violations are occurring in low income countries to satisfy the demands of people in western countries.