Demand For Cheap Seafood Drives Modern-Day Slavery

Demand For Cheap Seafood Drives Modern-Day Slavery

By Don Willlmott

It may be hard to stomach, but your tuna sandwich, your sushi, and even your cat food may be directly connected to modern-day slavery on the other side of the world—and there’s very little you can do about it. Illegal pirate-controlled overfishing in the seas of Southeast Asia is not only irrevocably damaging the environment, but it’s also luring thousands of desperate or naïve workers from places like Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia into bondage from which it is hard to escape. As a result, the world’s entire complex seafood supply chain is implicated, but the problem will be incredibly difficult to fix. Similar atrocities are also happening in other locales, most notably in Africa, where declining wildlife populations and rising farming and fishing costs are creating equally grim working conditions.  

In March, the Associated Press released a jaw-dropping report on slavery in the Asian fishing industry, focusing its story on the tiny island of Benjina, Indonesia, part of the Maluku about 400 miles north of Australia. The fishing grounds are Indonesian, but their bounty attracts illegal fishing fleets, including many from Thailand, that are looking for tuna, squid, and mackerel.

A Thai fishing vessel trawling in the Andaman Sea. Many such ships are crewed by trafficked, slave workers and fish illegally across the waters of Southeast Asia. (Source: Environmental Justice Foundation)

According to a report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) called Pirates and Slaves, Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, with a total catch valued at $7 billion in 2013, but perhaps 39 percent of the $1.6 billion worth of wild-caught seafood entering the U.S. market from Thailand has been caught illegally. All this unregulated fishing is damaging the ecosystem and causing a biodiversity crisis. In fact, the catch per unit of effort (CPUE) in the region has dropped by nearly 90 percent since 1966, making Thai waters one of the most overfished regions on the planet. It’s harder and costlier than ever to haul in catches, and that fact has led to the use of slavery.

Desperate employment agents who can no longer recruit legitimate workers to take on these dangerous jobs have recruited children and even the disabled, lying about the wages and sometimes drugging and kidnapping migrants. The agents then “sell” the slaves, most often to Thai fishing captains, for about $1,000. Then, of course, the men are told they have to work off that debt—a debt that will never end.

Enslaved fishermen interviewed by the AP said captains forced them to drink dirty water and work 20 to 22-hour shifts with no days off. They said they were kicked or whipped with stingray tails if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing as they hauled in heavy nets. AP reporters even found some slaves who had complained about the conditions imprisoned in cages in a Benjina warehouse. "I always thought if there was an entrance there had to be an exit," Tun Lin Maung, a slave abandoned on Benjina told the AP. “Now I know that's not true."

Workers aboard a Thai fishing vessel surveying their catch of so-called ‘trash fish’ which is ground up to make animal feed. It is trawled indiscriminately from the seabed and often includes juvenile fish from commercially important species. (Source: Environmental Justice Foundation)

Although it’s hard to track illegally caught fish once it hits the Thai docks and is trucked off in all directions, the AP verified that some of it found its way into supply chains that led directly to major American grocery chains and food distributors, as well as to canned tuna packers and pet food manufacturers. For that reason, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that slavery exists and downgraded Thailand to its lowest rating in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, a condemnation that carries no real penalty.

As Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF, put it in the EJF’s report, “Producers and consumers of Thai seafood are embroiled in one of the most outrageous social and ecological crimes of the 21st century. Ecosystem decline and slavery exist in a vicious cycle. People are trafficked as a result of environmental crises, and forced to endure terrible human rights abuses while working in industries which also harm the environment. Unrestricted industrial exploitation damages ecosystems and exposes vulnerable populations to trafficking and abuse. Overfishing exacerbates pirate fishing, which further drives slavery and environmental degradation.”

In fact, “There's a direct link between the scarcity of wildlife, the labor demands of harvests and this dramatic increase in child slavery,” Professor Justin Brashares from the University of California, Berkeley, who co-authored a study that analyzes connections between declining wildlife populations and slavery, told the BBC. “Many communities that rely on these wildlife resources don't have the economic capacity to hire more laborers, so instead they look for cheap labor, and in many areas, this has led to the outright purchasing of children as slaves,” he said.  

Unfortunately, with no clear single enemy to confront, typical tactics such as boycotts or sanctions are unlikely to be effective at addressing the issue. The best hope in the short term is for the governments that control the troubled fishing grounds to enforce their fishing regulations.

A worker sorts fish in the hold of a Thai fishing vessel, where working conditions are often dangerous and crew go unpaid. (Source: Environmental Justice Foundation)

Overfishing is one of the many issues we hope to address with the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative, a 10-year commitment to launch a total of five, multi-million dollar ocean XPRIZE competitions by 2020 (including the $2M Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE). XPRIZE is in a unique position to galvanize a community of innovators, scientists, government officials, business leaders, philanthropists and ocean advocates in service of a bold vision—to turn our oceans away from their current state of crisis and towards real breakthroughs to ensure that the world’s oceans become healthy, valued, and understood.

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Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel, and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

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