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The Wide Net of Seafood Slavery

A crew of Cambodian boys and men work on a Thai fishing ship a couple hundred miles off the coast of Thailand in the South China Sea. Credit: Ian Urbina / New York Times

A crew of Cambodian boys and men work on a Thai fishing ship a couple hundred miles off the coast of Thailand in the South China Sea. Credit: Ian Urbina / New York Times

By David Tickler & Jessica Meeuwig

Labour abuses are allowing fishing fleets to remain profitable while depleting fisheries ever-further from the coast.

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Many people think that slavery is a thing of the past, something from the era of colonial plantations and 18th century abolitionists’ efforts to end it. But such practices persist in the 21st century, with the International Labour Organisation and the Walk Free Foundation estimating that more than 40 million people are currently trapped in conditions of “modern slavery” – more than at any other time in history.

While forced marriages make up a share of this estimate, more than half of the people involved are being exploited in labour-intensive industries like agriculture and mining. Because of the survey methods used to identify victims of modern slavery, certain sectors may be underrepresented in the statistics, particularly those that operate in remote workplaces like the open ocean.

In recent years, reports of labour abuses on fishing vessels have emerged from all corners of the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania. A key dimension linking cases has been the exploitation of migrant workers from low-income countries on industrial fishing vessels from wealthier countries. For example, Cambodian and Burmese workers are being exploited in neighbouring Thailand or on vessels from South Korea and Taiwan.

This is not simply a case of globalisation gone bad. Trends in the development of global fisheries since the 1950s have created a...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.