The abuse of human rights aboard illegal fishing vessels

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Temps de lecture : 3 minutes  

Life as a crew member aboard any fishing vessel is a difficult and often hazardous occupation, and widely considered to be one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. However, in addition to the hazards associated with weather and the catch itself, the fishing industry is home to some of the worst examples of abuse in the workplace.

Pirate fishing operations in particular are often characterised by the lowest standards of working conditions and extensive reports of abuse. EJF’s investigations have documented crews on illegal fishing boats working under slave like-conditions, and facing daily exploitation and abuse.

In a new report (30 September 2010) ‘All at Sea – the abuse of Human Rights aboard illegal fishing vessels’ EJF exposes these human rights abuses, and documents how the lack of international regulation, including the exploitation of Flags of Convenience, allows pirate fishing operators to perpetuate these abuses with virtual impunity.

Exploitation and Abuse

The terrible and often illegal treatment of workers aboard IUU vessels include financial exploitation; poor health-care, food and accommodation; poor vessel safety; verbal and physical abuse; incarceration; and abandonment. The worst cases meet International Labour Organisation definitions of forced labour, including physical confinement, compulsion, retention of identity documents, and non-payment of wages.

Crew members aboard IUU vessels have reported being punched, beaten with metal rods, deprived of sleep, imprisoned without food or water, forced to continue working after injury; the worst cases of violence include murder. Travel documents are often confiscated and withheld; cases of abandonment are also reported. Violations of fair and promised pay are common, particularly the extraction of ‘agency fees’ and the withholding of pay at the end of the contract period.

Recruited crew members may pay up to several times their supposed monthly wage for these ‘fees’, and there have been reported examples of fishers working without pay for several years. The majority of these men are from developing countries, are often illiterate, are recruited from rural areas where jobs are scarce, and have no idea at all what faces them once they are on board a pirate fishing vessel and out at sea.

While EJF’s investigations have focussed on pirate fishing vessels operating off West Africa, the issue is a global one. EJF’s report ‘All at Sea – the abuse of Human Rights aboard illegal fishing vessels’ presents case studies also presents case studies from organisations including the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) that highlight the exploitation of crews working on illegal fishing vessels from regions as diverse as South-East Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and even Antarctica.

International Failure

Pirate fishing operations are able to perpetuate these human rights abuses due the complete failure of the international community to ratify instruments aimed at establishing minimum safety and labour requirements for fishing vessels.

When combined with poor enforcement of existing regulations by flag states, ship owners can allow the deterioration of the vessel so that it is not seaworthy and fail to provide safety equipment. As regulatory frameworks that address labour conditions aboard fisheries vessels have not been adopted, ratified or adequately enforced by the international community, there is essentially no legal framework to protect workers on pirate fishing vessels.

The use of Flags of Convenience (FoC) by IUU fisheries vessels has also been identified a big problem. FoC States generally lack the capacity and / or the will to enforce fisheries and labour laws on vessels flying their flag, thereby facilitating the actions of IUU fishing operators by minimising the risk of detection and punishment. FoC are notoriously easy, quick and cheap to acquire, allowing pirate fishing vessels to re-flag and change names several times in a season to avoid authorities. Backed by shell companies, joint-ventures and hidden owners, FoC severely constrain efforts to combat IUU fishing, as they make it extremely difficult to locate and penalise the real owners of vessels that fish illegally and/or exploit their crews.

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