‘A fishing accident blinded me but I was forced to keep working’: abuses faced by workers who catch our fish

Labor groups and government officials are pushing to rein in rampant abuses of workers in the fishing industry, where migrant laborers are frequently subjected to slavery and violence from employers.

One out of every five fish is caught through illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in conditions where abuses of workers are common, according to a United Nations estimate. About 128,000 workers are thought to be currently trapped in forced labor on remote fishing vessels around the world, according to the International Labour Organization.

Child labor or forced labor has been documented in the production of fish, dried fish, shellfish and shrimp in 20 countries, according to the US Department of Labor.

In one case, a worker was blinded in one eye after a fishing line snapped. He said the ship’s captain forced him to carry on working instead of seeking medical help.

Thea Lee, the deputy secretary for international labor affairs at the US Department of Labor, told the Guardian the government agency was pushing to close enforcement gaps, promote guidance for marine authorities and inspectors to look for labor violations, and utilize the purchasing power of the US government to push for changes in seafood supply chains. The Biden administration is also using international sanctions to push out illegal fishing vessels that propagate human rights abuses of workers.

“Fishing is just an extraordinarily problematic industry,” said Lee. “There are so many things about it both physically and economically that make it very, very vulnerable and it’s not just child labor and forced labor but every other problem, in particular safety and health violations, but also freedom of association, collective bargaining, all the fundamental labor rights and discrimination. Every fundamental labor right is probably broken a lot.”

With corporations performing self-audits on labor abuses in their supply chains and large gaps in data on the industry, there is a need for worker-centered solutions and governments to work together, said Lee.

“The onus is really on governments and corporations to fix this problem,” added Lee. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Adrei Nelwan worked as a migrant fisher from Indonesia for Taiwan deep-sea fishing vessels from 1995 until 2021 when he was deported after suffering a severe eye injury on the job. Despite his injury, he was forced to continue working for a month to receive medical care.

Taiwan exported $139m of seafood to the US in 2020, sold by retailers including Walmart and Costco and seafood brands such as Bumblebee Tuna. Taiwan has the second largest distance water fishing fleet in the world, behind China.

Seafood is displayed for sale at a Costco Wholesale Corp store in Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

“We work really hard and take pride in the work we do. The fish we catch ends up on plates in households and makes a lot of profits for major brands across the world,” Nelwan said.

In June 2021, he was working on a deep-sea fishing vessel when a fishing line snapped and hit him in the eye, causing permanent blindness in that eye.

“Although I was clearly in need of medical help, my captain forced me to continue working for another month on the high seas. I was allowed to rest for only a few days and then I treated my injury using antibiotics and paracetamol that I brought with me to relieve the pain,” recounted Nelwan. “On August 31, 2021, the vessel docked, and I was brought to a hospital, but the treatment was only meant to prevent infection, no other procedures were taken to save my eyesight.”

He said six other fishers on the vessel fled once it docked at port due to the harsh working conditions. The labor broker agency through which he obtained employment to work on the vessel transferred him to another boat while he was at port without his consent. Because he refused to accept a transfer, he was deported without any compensation or insurance. His wife in Indonesia took out a loan for $5,000 to try to cover medical treatment in Indonesia, but by then a medical intervention was too late to save his eye.

Adrie Nelwan, migrant fisher
Adrie Nelwan worked as a migrant fisher from Indonesia for Taiwan and was deported after suffering a severe eye injury on the job. Photograph: Courtesy of Global Labor Justice

“If I had received prompt medical help, it would have saved my eyesight,” he added.

Susanto, a migrant fisher from Indonesia in Taiwan from 2006 until 2020, also injured his eye due to a snapped fishing line and said injuries due to snapping fishing lines, including loss of limbs, fingers and eyes, are common. The denial of medical care and being forced to continue working through injuries is also common throughout the industry.

“I did not receive any medical help back then, but if we had wifi access back then I would have been able to receive medical help and my eye would be saved,” said Susanto.

He said work began around 7am, when workers would throw the fishing lines out until 1pm, then from 1pm to 5pm they would pull the fish from the lines on to the boat.

“When there were a lot of fish to pull on to the dock, we would only be able to rest for one or two hours,” said Susanto. “The sleeping patterns always change. The captain would tell us not to sleep when we have a good catch, and we only get to sleep for two to three hours.”

Susanto, migrant fisher in hospital after injuring his eye from a snapped fishing line. Photograph: Courtesu of Global Labor Justice/Courtesy of Global Labor Justice

Achmad Mudzakir, chairman of the Indonesia Seafarers Gathering Forum (Fospi), a worker advocacy group that includes more than 2,300 migrant fishers as members and who has also worked as a migrant fisher since 2003, said many of the issues facing migrant fishers revolve around unpaid wages, injuries, worker deaths and human trafficking issues.

“We generate a lot of profits for both Taiwan and Indonesia. But although we work for more than 14 hours a day, we only receive about $550 per month and this is the lowest among all migrant groups in Taiwan,” said Mudzakir. “The work we do is really difficult and dangerous. Sometimes we don’t have enough food or water. We often have to gather rainwater or the water dripping from air conditioners for basic necessities like bathing or drinking.”

He said employers will often terminate worker contracts and deport them without any compensation, and workers can face retaliation and deportation from employers if they try to report any abuses.

“A lot of workers experience verbal and physical abuse. They experience constrained mobility and isolation. About 80 to 90% of our members do not have identity documents with them because these documents are confiscated by their agencies,” added Mudzakir.

A, who requested to go by his first initial for fear of retaliation and retribution from employers, worked on a Chinese fishing vessel where he was kept at sea for about two years from 2021 to 2023 and consistently assaulted and beaten on the job. The vessel was reported to government authorities after some workers were dropped off the ship because they lost their fingers to frostbite and could no longer work.

“The physical abuse started when someone saw me picking up one of my gloves near the captain’s room, and they beat me, accusing me of stealing,” he said. “Every time I made a mistake, I was physically abused for it.”

He described excessive working hours, from 12 to 18 hours a day, and being forced to continue working through injuries without proper medical care. He also said he and other Indonesian workers on the vessel were discriminated against, only given leftover scraps of food from the other workers and rushed to eat.

“They hit us with bare hands and tools whenever any crew made a small mistake,” he said. “I wanted to go home but I had no choice but to keep working on the vessel because there was no way for me to go home.”

Another worker who requested to remain anonymous on a different fishing vessel witnessed a co-worker get brutally beaten after attacking the captain after his requests to transfer off the ship were repeatedly denied. Afterward, the co-worker was confined in a room where he later died, vessel staff claimed that the cause of death was suicide, though the worker is convinced his colleague was killed.

“They held the crew member down, he got beaten by three of them, I tried to break up the fight. His front teeth were all knocked out,” the worker said. “The deceased crew member was locked up in a freezer on the vessel for seven months until he was finally transferred to a collecting vessel. I’m not convinced that it was actually suicide.”

Fishermen unload fish and resupply their boat for another fishing trip on 18 May 2016 in Pingtung, Taiwan. Photograph: Billy HC Kwok/Getty Images

Some solutions being pursued to address the industry’s issues include mandating wifi access for workers, publishing vessel license information, and getting federal governments to pass and enforce regulations on seafood corporations.

The Indonesia Seafarers Gathering Forum (Fospi) has been pushing for wifi internet access through a campaign launched in 2022 with the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum. The campaign is demanding mandatory secure wifi internet access be provided on all deep-sea fishing vessels, which would allow migrant fishers to communicate with their family members and unions, or be able to report any abuses in real time.

“It’s a very basic ask,” said Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, executive director of Global Labor Justice. “We will be asking that wifi as a method of accessing fundamental labor rights be included in the labor section of US trade agreements.”

She emphasized this was a starting point for migrant fishers to be able to improve working conditions and that the costs should be shared throughout the supply chain, rather than imposed on direct employers.

“We see the global supply chain model operating in seafood as a fundamental challenge to labor rights for workers because it is set up to separate the entities that are making the highest-level profits and having the most power to change conditions from the entities that are the direct employer of the workers,” added Rosenbaum. “US and European brands and investors hide their heads in the sand and try to either ignore the problem or pass the responsibility and the cost and the liability all the way down the chain. We’re committed to interrupting that model.”

A fisherman uses his smartphone on the boat on in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Photograph: Billy HC Kwok/Getty Images

The organization is also pushing for enforceable brand agreements and for corporations to take accountability for working conditions in their supply chains. In 2023, Bumblebee Tuna agreed to a settlement over a lawsuit filed by Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum to remove claims about its fishing practices and working conditions on its advertising and marketing materials.

“We’ve been very active in trying to get wifi to be understood as a labor mechanism as a precondition for labor rights to happen,” said Valery Alzaga, deputy director of Global Labor Justice. “This is how labor rights get agreed on as a practice, by at least getting the infrastructure agreed upon and regulated.”

Steve Trent, CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation based in the UK, said that declining fish populations had exacerbated the issue as fishing vessels and employers cut costs by driving down or eliminating labor costs through abuse, exploitation and violence.

He said one of the solutions toward reining in labor abuses in the fishing industry was ensuring all government jurisdictions publish their list of fishing vessels and licenses.

“Most of this stuff is pretty simple, it’s traffic cop stuff,” said Trent. “It really is basic, if you look out your window, if the cars didn’t have number plates you’d be in a world of chaos, and crime. That’s what has been happening with boats if you don’t have a unique vessel identifier. The more jurisdictions that demand unique vessel identifiers, the more you can squeeze out the bad players and promote the good ones.”

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre published a 2019 report on modern slavery in Pacific tuna supply chains, surveying 35 canned tuna corporations and supermarkets representing 80 of the world’s largest retail canned tuna brands.

Some 60% of the world’s tuna supply is sourced from the Pacific Ocean region.

Bumble Bee albacore cans at a store in Mountain View, California. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

In a follow-up report in 2021, the Business & Human Rights Centre noted there was “glacial progress”, and the issues were worsening.

“Companies weren’t themselves clear on exactly where their products were coming from which obviously is problematic if companies are going to take the next step to ensure the workers in their supply chains aren’t suffering from abuse,” said Amy Sinclair, regional representative for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and author of the reports.

Corporations were also not identifying or disclosing cases of modern slavery in their supply chains, the reports found.

“There’s no silver bullet for addressing this type of issue. I think what’s important is that there’s a multi-pronged action addressed at different actors, so for governments to be initiating regulations and companies encouraged to implement good practices,” added Sinclair. “You can encourage good practices, endlessly, and we’ve had voluntary standards in place for years and years and years now. They’re not causing companies to act as quickly as they should.”

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