Labor & Commercial Fishing

Written by Aronya Waller

“Many [workers in the seafood sector] have experienced or witnessed inhumane working and living conditions, severe abuse, and even murder. Exceedingly long hours, unreliable access to clean water, insufficient food, and a lack of access to medical care are common on commercial fishing boats in many areas, as are physical and mental abuse, threats, and intimidation. Traffickers rely on the isolation of the sea and infrequent contact with law enforcement to deny workers the freedom to leave despite these conditions."

-Report of the U.S. Department of State

When considering equality and fairness within labor, people are fighting for fair wages, safe working conditions, and healthcare. Ethical labor is a global concern, and it affects all industries. Yet, it often impacts black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities more. We may be the people of the global majority, but we can probably all give multiple examples of labor inequities within our community and the surrounding neighborhoods. Some industries, such as agriculture and commercial fishing, can take advantage of their workers due to lack of regulation and enforcement, government corruption, subsidies, and the use of fear and predatory practices. As we continue our ocean series, we will take another dive into the abusive practices within the commercial fishing industry. These inequities occur worldwide, but they occur more in developing countries at a greater level. Low wages are not the worst of the labor abuses within the commercial fishing industry.

In 2015 and 2016, Associated Press journalists published scathing articles about the atrocities within the commercial fishing industry. Their Pulitzer Prize-winning series uncovered human trafficking, slavery, and low wages. Men who found themselves in these cages exposed the abusive practices of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. The journalists’ investigation led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves, uncovered numerous deaths, and ultimately traced the seafood they caught to supermarkets and pet food providers across the United States. 

In some places, especially Southeast Asia, commercial fishing has created a modern-day slavery system through little to no wages, human trafficking, and sexual assault. The most extreme examples may happen in developing countries, which do not have the capability to enforce abuses of larger fleets from more powerful nations. Worse, more developed countries with the ability and oversight to regulate worker abuse in commercial fishing have turned their heads away and toward generating profit. For example, most migrant fishers from Asia and Africa do not get paid fair wages working in Ireland. They may even have been trafficked for work under unscrupulous job descriptions. The commercial fishing companies in the United States also have poor working conditions and threaten their undocumented workers with deportation.

Men from Southeast Asia leave their impoverished homes to go to Thailand for jobs that promise good pay, intending to send that money back to their families. When they arrive for their new jobs, they come to find out that they were tricked, sold, or kidnapped, as reported by this AP investigation found that they were tricked, sold, or kidnapped. They confiscate their passports and place them onto fishing boats. They are nameless “workers” in floating prisons. It seems wrong to call these men workers as they were forcibly sent to the isolated Indonesian island village of Benjina, thousands of miles from their homes.

They experience physical and mental abuse while being forced to work up to 22 hours a day. The slaves work nonstop on the boat sorting loads of fish and are cruelly beat or burned with hot water when too sick to work. If they do not work, captains beat their legs with metal rods. If they become too ill or die, they are thrown into the sea or buried in a company graveyard under fake names. Sadly, these slaves supply fish and seafood for many notable companies in the United States such as Walmart, Sysco, Kroger, and even pet food brands such as Fancy Feast, and Iams.

Image from Marine Policy

Human trafficking is not limited to adult men—women and children have also been victims. Slavery and forced child labor were reported in the commercial fishing industry in the following African countries: Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. They face dangerous conditions, including harsh weather conditions and environmental elements without protective clothing, unsanitary living conditions, and limited fresh food and water. Workers could be required to work for days without breaks. Workers report high degrees of fatigue, which further increases the risk of accidents. Children would be used to dive for fish because of the belief that they had stronger lungs. Some dive without any protective gear, which puts them at higher risk of injury or death. Workers also report frostbite due to packing fish on larger vessels. Due to the highly hazardous nature of the work, fishing is generally considered the worst form of child labor.

More commercial fishing companies resort to human trafficking and slave labor as it becomes harder to find workers who wanted to work under these harsh boating conditions. The demand for seafood continues to grow globally, but it is at the request of low costs that does not represent the actual cost of production. Although the United States government has attempted to put laws, regulations, and recommendations into place, it perpetuates this problem. “With its strength of governance and ample resources, the United States should be able to reject illegally fished and unethically harvested seafood from its commerce stream,” Greenpeace said. “Yet, according to a recent report by the U.S. International Trade Commission, the United States imported an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood derived from IUU fishing in 2019.”

Image from Slow Food

According to the AP’s investigation, Hawaiian authorities may have broken their state law for years by issuing commercial fishing licenses to thousands of foreign workers who were refused entry into the country. They found approximately 700 men confined to fishing boats in Honolulu. Some workers were making less than $1 per hour. Meanwhile, their fleet was catching upwards of $110 million worth of seafood annually.

These workers were allowed to work on these types of fishing fleets in the United States due to a federal loophole—undocumented workers are allowed to work but exempt from basic labor protections. This loophole was found in The Tariff Act of 1930. Customs and Border Protection should seize any items produced from forced labor, except if there is insufficient domestic supply to keep up with demand. As of February 2016, the act has only been enforced 39 times, and the last time was in 2000. President Obama attempted to close the loophole by signing The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act in 2016. While there is stricter enforcement now under that act, it still relies on people to file a case if they believe products are being imported using forced or child labor. Many fleets still are not being reported, and it does not account for the workers with meager wages. 

Recently, however, the United States government has been doing its part this year to focus again on illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and human rights abuses in the seafood supply chain. In addition to the committee report and recommendations, Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA), Chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, and Representative Garret Graves (R-LA) introduced the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act in May. This legislation would link forced labor to seafood companies, strengthen enforcement against IUU fishing and forced labor, improve interagency cooperation, and increase pressure on other countries to fight human rights abuses. “IUU fishing is an environmental and humanitarian crisis, and the U.S. should be a global leader in solving it,” Rep. Huffman said. “Illegal fishing operations damage ocean ecosystems and healthy fisheries, and are often the same ones that rely on atrocious, illegal practices like human trafficking and forced labor.”

As we continue to fight for marine life and our oceans, we must remember to fight for the livelihood of the people forced to work in the commercial fishing industry. Part of veganism and the animal rights movement is also fighting for the workers involved and their livelihood. Human trafficking and slavery are not discussed enough in the commercial fishing industry. If you are going to fight for the fish, you also must fight for the humane rights of the people. Instead of blaming individuals, look to the commercial industry and the governments that subsidize and profit from them. Change can start at the bottom, but commercial fishing companies are profiting off individuals—workers, small communities, and consumers with marketing and labeling ploys that are false. Please write to the commercial fishing industries and ask how they obtain their fish and their indicators to prove humane fishing environments. In addition, it is imperative that you ask these companies for proof on how they care for their workers, what benefits their workers receive, and how they prevent human trafficking on boats. Please write to your local and national government officials requesting stronger labor laws within our countries, and write to United States officials to support the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act. There is no reason we should have modern-day slavery on our coasts. Finally, please ask how they are supporting Indigenous and local communities in which they fish to obtain the food they need instead of traveling further into dangerous seas.  Demand real answers as to what they are doing to ensure sustainable fishing practices for local communities. Let us continue fighting for better working conditions and more equitable labor practices not only on these ships, but in all industries.


19 U.S.C. 4 - TARIFF ACT OF 1930 

An AP investigation helps free slaves in the 21st century

Commercial Fishing: How Global Food Choices Negatively Impact the Oceans

Fishing slaves no more, but freedom brings new struggles 

Forced Labor

Hawaii may be breaking law by allowing foreign men to fish 

Hawaiian seafood caught by foreign crews confined on boats



Obama bans US imports of slave-produced goods 

Social & Environmental Justice in Seafood

Task Force on Human Trafficking in Fishing in International Waters Report to Congress | January 2021

Trafficking Risk in Sub-Saharan African Supply Chains

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