Home » Research » Hidden out on the big blue sea: trafficked fisherman

Hidden out on the big blue sea: trafficked fisherman

Trafficked fisherman – it sounds an unlikely situation doesn’t it?  Fishing conjures up images of retired men perched on riverbanks armed with their lunch in a little box and a flask of tea, or small scale rural fishermen, bobbing along in wooden boats on a tropical ocean.  However, the global demand for cheap fish has to be satiated somehow and one method of keeping costs low is the use of exploited and trafficked labour.  Global demand for affordable seafood is not the only reason for the prevalence of trafficked fisherman.  For instance, according to a key report by the International Organisation for Migration, in Thailand, the impact of Typhoon Gay in 1989 led to the abandonment of the sector by Thai fisherman and the destruction of a large number of boats, which resulted in a labour shortage now filled by fishermen from Cambodia and Myanmar.  Whatever its origins, the trafficking of men, and sometimes boys, for the purpose of labour exploitation at sea is a growing reality in Southeast Asia.

What makes the plight of the fishermen particularly acute is the fact that they are isolated far out at sea; they may not see land for a number of years, instead remaining trapped in heinous conditions.  The provision of assistance to this group and the development of research to understand how widespread the problem has become, faces seemingly insurmountable barriers.

Is this an issue in Singapore? In 2010, a case surfaced of a Mozambiquan and Filipino fishermen who were prevented from leaving their Taiwanese ship, which had docked in Singapore.  The Mozambiquan, Augusto Faustino Jorges, had been at sea for 15 months, surviving in difficult, abusive conditions at the time of his rescue.

There have been unofficial reports of a number of cases since.  In 2011, the US TIP Report referred to allegations of the trafficking of fisherman and claimed:

…there was greater reporting on victims of forced labour identified by NGOs and foreign missions on long-haul fishing boats that dock in Southeast Asian ports, including Singapore. Workers reported severe abuse by fishing boat captains, the inability to disembark from their vessels, the inability to terminate their contracts, and the non-payment of wages.

It went on to state that: ‘MOM [Ministry of Manpower] interviewed several fishermen who claimed abuses suggesting human trafficking but reported that they could not further investigate due to lack of jurisdiction over the suspected offenses.’

Singapore’s response was to reject the US Tip Report’s assertion and request that:

We would like the State Department to clarify these “reports” and to suggest how this issue could be addressed by Singapore, given the jurisdictional issues highlighted below….   We have not found any evidence of forced labour being committed on Singapore-flagged ships, by Singapore employers, or within Singapore waters.

This response highlights one of the key difficulties in addressing the issue of trafficked fisherman – jurisdiction.

The various components of the fishing industry may mean the location of a boat’s registration, the boat’s country of origin, location of the recruitment agency, site of recruitment and the location of the potential exploitation may all fall within different jurisdictions.  Thus, while the US may be correct about criminal offences committed in Singapore, as any boat arrives in port, there is little incentive for the Singapore Police Force, or other relevant front-line agencies, to actively investigate cases without appropriate suspicion or information.  Equally, there are few opportunities for the Singapore authorities to be alerted to any allegations of abuse, since exploited workers are unable to leave a ship, or have limited access to communication.  Oversight from companies within Singapore, which may be indirectly or directly linked to the fishing industry and are interested in developing an ethical supply chain, are complicated by the extensive sub-contracting which goes on in the ‘employment’ of fisherman and in the high levels of forged documentation which are used in this process.

Optimistically, as part of the recently published National Plan of Action, the Government commented that TiP Taskforce initiated new processes including ‘visiting sea ports to study ways to improve the assistance channels for fishermen in distress’.  This seems to indicate awareness that Singapore bears some responsibility in relation to labour conditions aboard boats docked in Singapore.

A recent excellent report into the working conditions aboard foreign fishing vessels operating in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone notes the nature of State jurisdictions in operation relating to this situation.  The first is the Flag State; the State whose flag flies on the vessel.  The second is the State in whose waters the boat is operating.  The final, and most relevant to Singapore perhaps, is the port State, which gives specific rights and duties to that State over foreign ships in their ports.  Thus, while it might be complex to untangle the particularities of ownership and responsibility for each ship on an individual and/or company level, states do have specific roles and opportunities with regard to labour conditions on fishing vessels.

So how has this issue been tackled elsewhere?  In Thailand, research carried out by the IOM found trafficking in the fishing industry to be a serious issue.  Victims were the subject of arduous working conditions and

expected to work 18 to 20 hours of back-breaking manual labour per day, seven days per week …live in terribly cramped quarters, face shortages of fresh water ….fishermen who do not perform according to the expectations of the boat captain may face severe beatings or other forms of physical maltreatment, denial of medical care and, in the worst cases, maiming or killing.

Increased attention has been paid by NGOs to the situation, as well as by law enforcement, immigration and others.  The Asia Foundation noted that while the Thai Government were aware of the situation, and had taken some measures to address this issue, these were insufficient. The Asia Foundation pointed out a lack of relevant data, limited capacity within government to tackle the issue and gaps within the legislation concerned with the fishing industry.  Others have noted the limited provision of effective services to victims and the problems which face victims after they have been identified.

As a recent story in the Straits Times reporting on a number of Cambodians aboard Thai fishing boats who had jumped overboard to escape, this kind of trafficking continues to be a serious issue.  Significantly, the paper commented that Thailand was in danger of being downgraded to a Tier 3 country by the US State Department in its 2012 Trafficking in Persons report.  Such a downgrading could, potentially, spur the Thai Government into taking more robust and concrete action to address this issue.  Equally, it is promising that the US is paying particular attention to this kind of trafficking.

An unlikely positive story seems to exist in relation to Myanmar.  According to the IOM report, Myanmar requires that all crew on fishing boats in Myanmar water be nationals with relevant identification cards; boats are inspected by the Myanmar Navy with a penalty system of fines in place should members of the crew be injured or missing.  This system has real potential to protect and prevent worker exploitation among fishing vessels.  While the motivation behind this programme may not be preventing human trafficking, the effects are clear.  From the Singapore perspective, there may be merit in the Coast Guard taking a more hands-on, pro-active approach to the inspection of ships entering Singapore’s waters, with particular attention paid to the crew’s working and living conditions and the provision of training to relevant front-line officers on trafficking.

This post has barely scratched the surface of the murky world of trafficked fisherman.  Due to location, and the difficulties facing escaped victims, research on this issue has been relatively limited.  Significantly, as long as the squabbles over State jurisdiction and responsibility continue, there appears to be limited will and means to prevent this crime.  However, Singapore could really take the lead on tackling trafficking robustly and effectively, especially if the study currently being carried out by the Taskforce, as outlined in the NPA, comes to fruition.


  1. Wjn says:

    Great article! With the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (Singapore just ratified it: http://www.singaporelawwatch.sg/slw/index.php/headlines/12636-new-laws-on-seamens-rights-by-end-2013?utm_source=web%20subscription&utm_medium=web) expected to come into force soon, I wonder what are the implications for trafficked fishermen?

  2. […] example of an area where there is a need for further research is the issue of fisherman. While there is no official data on the scope of trafficked fisherman in Singapore, John Gee of […]

  3. TTRP says:

    Thank you for your comment Wjn and the reference. It will be interesting to see what the impact of this new commitment will be – I would also be interested to know whether they are liaising with the Taskforce on trafficking and migrant labour/trafficking NGOs as part of their consultation with stakeholders? I guess it is a case of ‘watch this space’ and a hope that the commitments laid out in the MLC are reflected both in policy and in the implementation of those policies.

  4. […] months, we expanded geographically and thematically, exploring  a range of trafficking issues from trafficked fisherman to the language used in human trafficking discourse, touching on  the role of abolition in the […]

  5. […] to land-based exploitation; equally vulnerable are workers in the Irish Sea.  Our previous post on trafficked fisherman highlighted some of the challenges faced by this group including a lack of clear jurisdiction for […]

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