Slavery and labour abuses

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Slavery and labour abuses are most commonly found in the fishing and the seafood processing industries, to the extent that they are often understood as a fisheries crime.1 Labour abuses also take place in other sectors such as shipping, though to a lesser degree due to stronger labour regulations.2 This entry primarily discusses the fisheries sector, but will make secondary references to labour abuses in other maritime sectors.

Slavery and labour abuse in the maritime sector includes practices including unsafe or unsanitary woking conditions, the employment of children, employment without contract, withholding pay, docking recruitment costs, seizing passports, and physical violence (see Characteristics below for more detail).3 Fair labour practices and conditions are guided by the 2007 Work in Fishing Convention and 2013 International Maritime Labour Convention (also known as the Seafarer’s Bill of Rights),4 with forced labour defined in the ILO Forced Labour Convention.5

Credit: ILO Ship to Shore Rights Project, This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 IGO License. To view a copy of this license, visit

Slavery and labour abuses can take place in both sea and land-based components of the fisheries supply chain. At sea, this includes fish processing on board fishing vessels, fish farming on aquaculture installations at sea, or capturing marine resources from rafts, vessels or fishing platforms. Shore-based operations, include work at ship repair yards, work at ports (repairing nets or lines, sorting fish or shellfish), shore-based harvesting of marine resources, and work at fish processing plants. Long distance fishing sees the most abusive practices, with short distance fishers changing employers more regularly.6

Labour abuses are a way for unscrupulous employers to cut costs or to make up crew shortfalls.7 Overfishing has intensified this problem, because reduced stocks mean that boats often spend longer at sea, increasing operational costs.8. The pressures caused by climate change may intensify it further still.

Poverty or the destruction of infrastructures through war or natural disasters may increase the vulnerability of people to exploitation as they seek work away from home.9 For example, between Rohingya refugees fleeing anti-Muslim violence and labour in Myanmar have become victims of labour abuses in the Thai fishing sector.10

Southeast Asia is often considered to be the most problematic region for maritime labour abuses,11 though the the problem is global. Other cases have been documented in inland fisheries in Ghana,12 Sierra Leone, and other West African countries,13 amongst Ukrainian fishers and seafarers working in Russia and South Korea,14 as well as in wealthy countries including New Zealand,15 Ireland,16 and the UK.17

The COVID-19 pandemic has created further issues for maritime labourers’ rights.18 The pandemic caused many countries to close their borders to travellers in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. In consequence, many seafarers were stranded on their ships, well beyond their initial labour contracts.19 In October 2020, for example 400,000 crew were reported to be stranded globally.20 A further 90,000 cruise line employees were stranded in this period in US waters alone.21

Crew changes were not permitted in many countries despite repeated calls from organisations such as the IMO and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).22 Crew members are often reluctant to speak out about poor working conditions. The  ITF reports that “many seafarers have expressed concerns about the consequences if they raised their voices about their personal fatigue and the impact of the safety of the crew, ship and cargo – for fear of losing future job opportunities, commonly known as blacklisting”.23


The UNODC identifies four phases in which illegal labour practices in the maritime sector take place. These include: initial recruitment (or in some cases abduction); transportation or potentially illegal transfer (entry) from one country (origin) to another (destination); exploitation on board vessels; and the subsequent phase of profit laundering.24

Each of these phases has various degrees of criminality. At its most organised, boats and business owners take advantage of a complex regulatory and jurisdictional framework, weak fisheries management practices, forgery of logbooks and other documents the use of flags of convenience.25 Vessels often stay out at sea for longeperiods to reduce the chance of inspection.26 Transhipment of trafficked workers at sea is another method used to facilitate this crime, because vessels do not need to return to port.27

The problem of slavery in the maritime sector has received significant attention. This has been seen in Thailand, where business owners, corrupt officials, labour brokers, and criminal trafficking networks work together in exploiting vulnerable migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia.28 Deception, coercion and violence are used to bring migrants onto fishing vessels.29 In Indonesia, where 1342 trafficked fishers were rescued in 2015, they reported to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) that they were told that the jobs would be low-skilled and they would have all of their needs met onboard.30 In many cases, the destination of the work was different from that promised. Cases of coercion were also documented. Labourers were promised more lucrative jobs outside of the fishing sector but were forced onto the vessel when they arrived at the pier.

Cases in New Zealand, Scotland, and Northern Ireland also saw deception about employment conditions and the minimum wage that would be paid, with coercion leading to victims signing contracts.31 These practices demonstrate labour abuses can be a systematic practice that involves a broad and organised network of licit and illicit actors across borders engaging in criminal activities. 

These documented cases match human trafficking as defined in the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children due to the role of coercion and deception in the recruitment process.32 They therefore see high degrees of criminalization. There are debates on whether the resultant focus on human trafficking is useful in other cases, however. Some argue that a trafficking framework does not account for the wide variety of migrant worker circumstances, nor the agency of the workers themselves in trying to improve their own lives.35 Because Thailand’s fishing sector accepted undocumented workers, it was sometimes seen as a way for migrant workers without documentation to avoid arrest.

Once onboard vessels, a combination of practices that facilitate forced labour. These include the confiscation of identity documents, not issuing contracts or seaman’s books, withholding pay, forced detention and bonded labour.36 These practices take place in a context where it is already difficult to physically escape due to the remoteness of the vessels, or due to guards preventing escape at port.37

Debt bondage is a common feature of forced labour, where labourers are charged for their placement on board a vessel and expected to pay it off over time through their labour.38 Enslavement occurs because the terms of these bonds are often open-ended, and the decision to consider a debt paid is at the discretion of the lender. This is particularly problematic if  labourers are charged inflated costs of keeping them onboard, making it impossible to escape the debt bondage.

In an IOM report, fishers’ working hours had to be extreme in order to earn enough money to pay off debt: 46% worked between 16 and 20 hours per day and 32% between 21 and 24 hours per day.39 In a case identified in Northern Ireland, Philippine workers often worked seven days in a row and for up to 34 hours without sleep.40 In a New Zealand case, further debts were incurred through arbitrary deductions, aggressive agency fees, and the manipulation of exchange rates.41 Debts may also be kept hidden with workers faced with the need to pay an unexpected amount before they are able to leave.

Some fishers are chained or confined onboard.42 In the most extreme cases, chaining may be combined with physical violence, sexual violence, psychological abuse, and even murder to prevent insubordination.43 A 2013 International Labour Organization (ILO) study found that more than 16 per cent of Burmese fishers surveyed on Thai fishing vessels had been severely beaten while on the job.44 A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that 59 per cent of interviewed migrants trafficked aboard Thai fishing boats had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker.45 Some workers are thrown overboard when they are killed or die from exhaustion, or even if they fall ill or get injured. This prevents any accountability for the loss of life, because there are no investigations into the cause of death.

Child labour is also sometimes used. In 1999, for example, the ILO identified forced child labour on fishing platforms in Indonesia.46

Illegal labour practices short of slavery, as set out in the ILO’s Maritime Labour and Work in Fishing conventions, are also common. Problems including working excessive working hours, limited access to healthcare, unsanitary working and living conditions, restrictions on mobility, and insufficient food and rest.


It is difficult to assess the extent of labour abuses in the maritime sector for several reasons. First, systematic studies of forced labour focus primarily on women and children.47 Second, they tend to cover specific industries such as sex work. Third, slavery practices happen in isolation at sea. Fourth, fishers are often reluctant to see themselves as victims of forced labour.48 Fifth, government officials do not always regard these acts as human trafficking.49 Finally, there is no centralised global reporting mechanism for cases of forced labour, and any data reports tend to be geographically restricted. These obstacles become even more problematic when trying to ascertain the scope of broader labour abuses short of slavery.

It is clear, however, that the number of cases is likely to be significant due to an increasing demand for cheap labour in fisheries particularly. In Thailand alone, there is a shortfall of 74,000 labourers in the industry which suggests that there will be an ongoing demand.50


There is a strong evidence base that suggests that victims of labour abuse in the fishing industry particularly suffer significant physical harm due to overwork, a lack of safety precautions, abuse such as beatings, and illness due to poor conditions.(IOM 2015; ILO 2017; Yea 2020) These are widespread. In a 2017 survey undertaken by the ILO of fishers in Thailand, 25 per cent of respondents had experienced work-related injuries and ten per cent had experienced physical abuse.(ILO 2017) At the most extreme, this includes death of the workers.(IOM 2016)

When combined with ongoing debts and threats of violence, these stressors also cause ongoing psychological harm to fishers.{Iglesias-Rios et al. 2018; Pocock et al. 2018; Yea et al. 2022)

Because they are often treated as illegal workers, there is generally a lack of restorative justice for fishers who are deported when ‘rescued’. This leads to ongoing effects even when workers are repatriated. As Yea et al. demonstrate, there are “a lack of job opportunities when returning home, stigma and censure from families and communities, and ongoing health problems”.(Yea et al. 2022; see also, Yea 2020).

Labour abuse causes economic issues in communities beyond the fishers themselves. Often, families in countries of origin depend on remittances, and are therefore negatively impacted when wages are not paid.(ILO 2021). Licit fishing businesses and communities are negatively impacted because they cannot compete with those engaged in labour abuse due to the disparity of operating costs (Derks 2010; Malik Forthcoming).

Linkages & Synergies

Slavery and labour abuses have significant links with IUU Fishing. The Indonesia cases, for example, involved labour abuses in parallel with IUU Fishing activities.51 This linkage results from the fact that vessels engaging in IUU Fishing are often well-established in avoiding detection and regulation, allowing for labour abuses to occur, and IUU fishers tend to be principally economically motivated and willing to cut costs.

There are also linkages to human trafficking occurring outside of the fishing industry specifically. This is because the trafficking of labour into the fishing sector depends on irregular migrant routes that are also exploited by human traffickers.52 There have been several cases involving the trafficking of persons by the same networks for the purpose of organized sexual exploitation by fishers and seafarers.53


The primary response to forced labour is regulatory in nature. The ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention, for example, establishes minimum requirements for work on board vessels, accommodation and food, occupational safety and health protection, as well as medical care.54 However, while the Convention has come into force internationally, only 20 states have ratified it to date.55

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) also has conventions on standards of training, including the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW),56 and Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel (STCW-F).57 As above, however, there is inconsistent ratification and enforcement. One issue is that some of the more effective tools cover only merchant shipping and not fishing vessels. Port State Controls, for example, ensure compliance with labour standards through regional Memoranda of Understanding but do not always include fishing vessels.[/efn_note]ILO 2010[/efn_note]

The ILO, IMO, International Organization for Migration (IOM), and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are at at the forefront of the international response. Each have had some notable successes. The IOM, for example, has enacted a rescue-based approach through its counter-trafficking unit, where they offer travel documents and repatriation for trafficked fishers, as well as reintegration assistance.58 The ILO has seen some success through its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour which has helped countries like Indonesia reduce child labour in the fishing sector.59

There has been a renewed international focus on reforming labour standards in the maritime sector.  The Ship to Shore Rights programme, led by the ILO in partnership with the EU, IOM, and UNDP, works along the Thai seafood supply chain with the Thai Government, workers’ and employers’ organizations, and civil society organizations for example.60 It has four objectives: (i) to strengthen the legal, policy and regulatory framework; (ii) to improve the labour inspectorate’s ability to move against forced labour and other rights abuses; (iii) to improve compliance with ILO core labour standards and establish a complaints mechanism across the supply chain; and (iv) to increase access to support services for workers, especially victims of labour abuses. Of these, evidence suggests that the first objective has advanced the furthest.61 The programme primarily engages in the sharing of promising practices, setting standards, training, and dialogues with national stakeholders.62

One issue with this form of response is that it depends on the capacity and willingness of individual states to enforce regulations, and focuses primarily on forced labour. Thailand for example is on the US Department of State’s Tier 2 Watchlist for Trafficking in persons, and has faced being further downgraded in the past.63 It was also issued with a probationary yellow card by the European Union in its counter-IUU Fishing programme, with labour practices cited as a key requirement for removal.64 In response, the Thai Government established a new framework to regulate labour in the fishing industry that was referred to as ‘victim-centred’.67 New labour inspectors were employed and trained, and fishers are now required to be paid electronically.68

There is evidence that these reforms have  led to some improvements for workers in the short-haul sector in particular, but it have not completely tackled the issue.69 14 percent of fishers in Thailand are still classified as working under conditions of forced labour by the ILO.70 Companies have also found ways to evade the new measures, for example by confiscating workers’ ATM cards. Restrictions on fisheries workers such as the inability to change boats remain, and inspectors cannot always identify violation of labour regulations onboard. One report suggests “workers in fishing, in particular, undergo repeated and highly ritualistic inspections by Thai Government officials that appear to have produced rote responses to questions regarding wages, hours and more”, with premiums paid to these workers by employers.71

The government also committed to investigations and arrests of those involved in forced labour. While investigations have indeed increased, the number of prosecutions has actually decreased.72 Where investigations have succeeded, the legal process has been slow, there has been a lack of legal support for victims, and often the boat owners are excluded from the case. Corruption has been highlighted as a key enabler of ongoing labour abuses.  The limitations demonstrated by the Thai case also show the need for governments to strengthen enforcement and accountability measures in this area.73

These problems are not limited to the Global South, with evidence of enforcement problems in wealthier countries too. In the New Zealand case discussed above, evidence suggests that the persistence of the issue resulted from a lack of enforcement capacity over foreign flagged fishing vessels and a lack of domestic coordination.74 While New Zealand has amended its law to require reflagging of all vessels fishing in New Zealand’s EEZ and clarified jurisdiction in regard to employment, there is still a lack of coordination between relevant agencies.[/efn_note]Macfarlane 2017[/efn_note]

There have also been non-state responses which aim for more sustainable change and to fill gaps in regulation and enforcement identified above. Some of these have been successful. Many supermarkets and seafood buyers have established programmes to ensure supply chains are free of slavery-associated products through stringent supply chain monitoring for example.75 NGOs such as the Issara institute in Thailand gather data on labour practices through a 24-hour hotline, establish worker groups, and work with producers to improver worker conditions.76

  1. International Organisation for Migration 2016; International Labour Organisation n.d.; Mackay et al. 2020
  2. Human Rights at Sea 2021
  3. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  4. International Labour Organisation 2007; 2006
  5. International Labour Organisation 1930
  6. Human Rights Watch 2018; IHRB 2020
  7. Human Rights at Sea 2021
  8. International Labour Organisation 2013; Environmental Justice Foundation 2015
  9. Derks 2010
  10. Environmental Justice Foundation 2014; Stoakes et al. 2015
  11. Greenpeace 2019; Human Rights at Sea 2021
  12. Feed the future 2014; ]International Labour Organisation 2013; Ratner et al. 2014
  13. Stop Illegal Fishing 2021
  14. International Labour Organisation 2013
  15. Simmons & Stringer 2014; Stringer et al. 2015; Kartikasari et al. 2021
  16. Murphy 2017; McSweeney 2021; US State Department 2021; Murphy et al. 2022
  17. Sparks 2022; Djohari & White 2022
  18. International Labour Organisation 2020; United Nations Global Compact 2021; Vandergeest et al. 2021; International Labour Organisation 2020; Sliskovic 2020; Human Rights at Sea 2021; ITF 2021; De Beukelaer 2021
  19. Sliskovic 2020; Human Rights at Sea 2021; ITF 2021
  20. IMO 2020
  21. Fortune 2020
  22. IMO 2021; ILO et al. 2022
  23. ITF 2020
  24. UNODC 2020
  25. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  26. FAO 2020a; 2020b; Stop Illegal Fishing n.d.
  27. FAO 2020a; 2020b; Stop Illegal Fishing n.d.
  28. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  29. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  30. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  31. Murphy et al. 2022; Sparks 2022; Djohari & White 2022
  32. UNODC 2000
  33. Marschke & Vandergeest 2016; Vandergeest et al. 2017; Vandergeest & Marschke 201933 In the Indonesian rescue case above, only a small number of victims considered themselves to have been cheated, despite believing the job would be easier.34International Organisation for Migration 2016
  34. International Organisation for Migration 2016; International Labour Organisation 2013
  35. International Organisation for Migration 2016; International Labour Organisation 2013; Human Rights Watch 2018;
  36. Human Rights Watch 2018; ILO n.d.; Chantavanich et al. 2015; Derks 2010; Scarpa 2008; Davidson 2013
  37. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  38. Allamby et al. 2011
  39. Macfarlane 2017
  40. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  41. ILO n.d.
  42. ILO 2013
  43. UNIAP 2009
  44. ILO 1999
  45. GAO 2006
  46. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  47. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  48. Ismail 2018
  49. International Organisation for Migration 2016
  50. UNODC 2011
  51. UNODC 2011
  52. International Labour Organisation 2007; 2006
  53. ILO n.d.
  54. IMO 1978
  55. IMO 1995
  56. IOM n.d.; 2016
  57. ILO n.d.
  58. Ship to Shore Rights n.d.
  59. Ship to Shore Rights n.d.
  60. Ship to Shore Rights n.d.
  61. US State Department 2022
  62. EU Commission 2019
  63. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Thailand 202165 This included ratifying the Work in Fishing convention. Reforms included the registration of undocumented migrant labour, and port-in port-out (PIPO) inspection centres, coordinated by the Thai Navy, where vessels are inspected and workers interviewed to check regulatory compliance.66 Ministry of Foreign Affairs Thailand 2018
  64. Ship to Shore Rights n.d.
  65. Ship to Shore Rights 2020
  66. Ship to Shore Rights 2020
  67. Ship to Shore Rights 2020
  68. US State Department 2022
  69. Ship to Shore Rights 2020
  70. Simmons & Stringer 2014; Stringer et al. 2015; Kartikasari et al. 2021; Macfarlane 2017
  71. MSC n.d.
  72. Issara Institute n.d.