This Fish was Caught Sustainably by a Slave: A Brief Look into Human Rights and Social Responsibility in Fisheries

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Picture this. You are walking down the seafood aisle in your favorite supermarket, meticulously looking for that one perfect slice of packaged tuna. Because you are environmentally conscious, you go for that one product with an eco-label that says ‘sustainably fished’.

But what if the label does not paint the whole story? What if the full label reads ‘sustainably fished, but this fish might just be caught by a slave’?

Grim as it sounds, that was the reality of the seafood industry until recently. Modern-day slavery is still rampant in the fisheries sector, including in Indonesia. Based on a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in collaboration with the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia, Indonesia Presidential Task Force to Combat Illegal Fishing, and Coventry University, in 2015, more than 1000 trafficked fishers were rescued from Benjina and Ambon.

These fishers, who since have been repatriated, had come from impoverished regions of Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos after following the empty promises for better jobs and lives. These laborers were subjected to horrid working- and living-conditions, inhumane work hours, terrible sanitation, with little to no access to healthcare. They suffered from partially-held or fully-held wages, debt bondage, even as far as becoming victims to physical and psychological abuse. Some rescued fishers even stated that being murdered and having their bodies dumped to the sea or land is a real possibility—one that has happened time and time before.

Even with these human rights violations, the captured fish can still find their way into the sustainability business. To do so, the slave-owners use tactics like transshipment (transporting fish from one vessel to another) and reflagging (changing the national flag of a vessel, often to smuggle fish, goods, and people). But, as long as the fish stock is maintained and the sustainability assessment still comes out green, then who cares, right?

Is It Sustainable? Yes. Is It Ethical?

In the era of an emerging generation of consumers—young people with purchasing power—that are growing more and more environmentally conscious, companies are competing to slap an eco-label or two on their packaging.

Thus, the term greenwashing was coined to define a PR practice in which companies advertise their products as environmentally friendly, showcasing their sustainable policies and their supposed positive environmental impacts without actually committing to it, consequently diverting the public’s attention from the actual pressing issues. On one hand, this phenomenon shows a ‘promising’ trend that prioritizing the environment is the new big thing and companies are rising to meet this challenge—whether sincerely or superficially to satisfy market demands.

But, on the other hand, sustainability has become the new buzzword that is hailed to the skies. One that has nearly drowned out the rest. Due to these consumer mindsets, humans have often been overlooked in the fight for conservation. Seeing the prevalence of the aforementioned practices, one can not help but wonder if the general public cares more about sustainability than ethical practices. Not only consumers, companies also seem to think the same.

The 2018 Global Slavery Index showed that 39% of the world’s fisheries catch were generated from seven countries with a high risk of modern slavery at sea—China (and Taiwan), Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and Spain.

Later on, in May 2020, it was revealed that fishing vessel Longxing 629, operating under a Chinese company, Dalian Ocean Fishing Co., Ltd, had conducted human rights violations—slavery, forced labor, wage issues—against its Indonesian crew members. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that a number of Chinese fishing vessels that had committed human rights violations had also transshipped their catch to reefer vessels, which unloaded the fish in Japan.

A number of Japanese companies were questioned following this issue. Five of them admitted they had no awareness regarding the conditions of their raw suppliers along the supply chain, with insufficient traceability to fishing vessels and catchers. (Read the full Human Rights Now report here)

If we take a closer look into this issue using two of those five companies as examples, Seven & i Holdings Co., Ltd. (parent company of Seven-Eleven) has committed itself to sustainability by selling MSC-certified fisheries products under its private brand, while its subsidiary, Ito-Yokado supermarket has acquired Marine Eco Label Japan (MEL) certification. Meanwhile, Maruha Nichiro, a seafood company, has publicly stated its stance in promoting sustainable MSC certified products.

Sustainability (and Where Do Human Rights Fit In?)

Sustainability in commercial fisheries products is ensured by eco-labels, which are labels most commonly placed on retail products to indicate that the seafood was caught in an environmentally sustainable way. To acquire these ‘seals of approval’, companies have to meet a certain set of criterias within the standard enforced by the issuer of the certification. This was done through a series of rigorous assessments to ensure that their fisheries practices are, in fact, sustainable.

There are a number of seafood eco-labels around the world, one of the largest and most widely known in the industry being the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label. Based on a review by Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) that was published earlier this year, the MSC standards scored zero on human rights protection (assessed against HRAS’s key performance indicators).

So, let’s take a closer look, shall we? Within its fisheries standard, MSC has outlined a number of indicators that should be met before gaining its certification. These standards can be briefly summarized into:

1. Sustainable fish stocks This point deals with maintaining and repairing stocks through Harvest Strategies and Harvest Control Rules

2. Minimizing environmental impacts This point deals with primary and secondary species, ETP (endangered, threatened, and protected) species, habitats, and ecosystems

3.Effective management

This point deals with governance, policy, and other fishery-specific management systems

From this summary, sustainable fishery appears to not concern itself with the well-being of humans. To be fair, the scope of MSC standard (page 11) does state that the client shall not include vessels that have committed ‘serious crime’ in the past 2 years, the crimes being illegal fishing, transnational organized crime, trafficking of people, trafficking of unauthorized goods, and piracy. However, the crimes listed above do not cover the majority of human rights violations at sea. This, in turn, might leave you thinking that sustainability and ethical practices are a dichotomy that should be dealt with separately. That could not be further from the truth.

Ethical practices are not mutually exclusive to sustainability. They are intricately linked, since sustainable seafood can only truly be sustainable when it also upholds human rights, ensures fair labor conditions, and respects the dignity of workers throughout the supply chain. Neglecting ethical practices within fisheries has severe consequences for both the environment and human rights. Even from the companies’ perspective, prioritizing profit over human rights will perpetuate the exploitation of workers, leading to a risk of damaging their reputation, losing consumer trust, and compromising the long-term sustainability of the business. So, How Do We Fit Human Rights Within The Sustainability Framework? As mentioned earlier, the crimes listed in the MSC’s ‘serious crime’ section do not cover the majority of human rights violations that are commonly found in the fisheries industry. These violations include but not limited to forced labor, child labor, abuse, harassment, discrimination, inhumane work hours, debt bondage, withholding of wages, lack of occupational safety, denial of rest, denial of basic necessities and medical care, and denial of the freedom of association (subsequently, the right to unionize) and collective bargaining. To protect the workers’ rights, there should be an explicit human rights and social responsibility (HRSR) policy upheld and agreed upon by all the stakeholders involved within a fisheries management framework that encompasses all those forms of human rights violations. Drafting and signing the HRSR policy was the easy part. Without implementing it, a policy statement would be nothing more than a shiny piece of pdf uploaded to a stakeholder’s website—which makes it yet another form of greenwashing, only this time, it is about people instead of the environment. It should be noted that, ultimately, social responsibility in fisheries is not established for the sake of companies and their consumers. It is to protect the vulnerable individuals working at the grassroots level.

This could be achieved through: 1) Knowing one’s rights The most important—but sometimes overlooked—step in human rights enforcement is making people aware of their own rights. Workers could not advocate for themselves or seek help if they are not aware that their rights are being violated. In this case, knowledge is key. Stakeholders should disseminate both the rights and the policies surrounding them to those in vulnerable positions.

2) Implementing a transparent grievance reporting mechanism A grievance mechanism is needed when dealing with violations. This mechanism will allow workers to report any unethical practices they might be experiencing to the authorities. But, as any other mechanisms implemented within a system, a grievance mechanism can easily get bogged down with bureaucracy, thus resulting in a convoluted, time-consuming process that hinders the handling of the issues it was built to tackle in the first place. This, with the added mistrust to the establishment, can result in the workers’ reluctance in reporting their cases. To tackle this challenge, the workers have to be involved in the designing process of the grievance mechanism, so it can be adjusted to their specific needs. This will also raise the credibility of the stakeholders acting as the enforcers of the HRSR policy.

3) Effective collaborations and tight surveillance Like any other policies, collaborations are needed between all the stakeholders to implement a HRSR policy, whether they are government institutions, law enforcement, NGOs, academia, fishers group, businesses, etc. Is Human Rights and Social Responsibility Policy Enough? Even after discussing HRSR policy implementation, it may still seem that environmental sustainability and ethical practices exist in their own vacuums. The HRSR policy may come across as being tacked on as an afterthought, since fisheries management and human rights enforcement are two different mechanisms operating in different domains. But there is one aspect of human rights which we have not, or have barely touched upon, which is welfare. Sustainable seafood can not be called sustainable if it does not ensure the welfare of those working within the industry. This issue is especially pressing in Indonesia, since more than 2 million people in the country work as small-scale fishers, and a significant amount of them still live below the poverty line. To face this problem, fisheries management should not only concern itself with fish stocks and habitat preservation, but also take community welfare into consideration. Attempts at sustainable practices should not deprive fishers from their livelihood. For more concrete examples, banning destructive fishing methods should go hand in hand with providing sustainable fishing gears. The closing of an area for stock rebuilding purposes should be followed by the rise in alternative sources of income, either in fishery or non-fishery related sectors. Asking fishers to release juveniles below a certain length should be accompanied with the reason why. To check out our works in Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) and our efforts to make it ethical, click here!


Author: Agavia Kori Rahayu | Editor: Annisya Rosdiana

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