Global fish industry in the public eye

by Thomas Jensen

Humane working conditions are in the meantime recognized throughout the world as an elementary human right and deemed an intrinsic part of sustainable development.

The fish industry is an important employer with nearly 60 million people worldwide earning their living from fishing and a further 140 million employed in the fish processing and sales sectors. Working conditions differ greatly from region to region. Most countries respect internationally-recognized labour standards but there are also some horrifying negative examples that are reminiscent of early-capitalist exploitation.

In recent times Thailand, in particular, has often been seen as an example of dangerous, inhumane and degrading working conditions. And labour conditions in the fishing sector were particularly poor where many of the larger fishing vessels are crewed by more than 90 per cent migrants, particularly from Myanmar and Cambodia. The workers often had their identity papers taken from them so that they were at the mercy of the vessel’s captain. It was not rare for them to be kept like slaves, exploited, and miserably treated, and even after months at sea they were often not allowed to go from board when the vessel finally arrived in a port. Human rights organisations have compiled dozens of reports on such degrading working conditions. Human trafficking, pitiful wages, and poor diet, forced labour and physical violence are presumably quite common on board such ships. It is reported that in individual cases executions have even been carried out. The EU and the USA demand an immediate stop to human trafficking and slave labour in Thailand’s fish industry and all other countries concerned. International food groups that import raw materials and fish products from these countries demand from their suppliers that they ensure decent, humane working conditions for their employees. In November 2016 even the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People denounced the exploitation of migrants in the fishing industry on the occasion of World Fisheries Day.

Thailand’s government and seafood companies are noticing the growing pressure and are acting. A whole bundle of measures has been introduced by the government to radically improve the situation. They range from individual registration of migrants and crew members on fishing vessels to effective controls in the ports and at sea, and strict punishment in the event of violation of existing regulations. In March 2017, for example, 16 human traffickers were condemned to 14 years imprisonment because they had kidnapped migrants to work on their fishing vessels. The package of reforms does not only aim at putting an end to human rights violations in the fish industry but at the same time it wants to curb IUU fishing. The government is supported in its efforts by big seafood companies that are mostly dependent on exports. The Thai Union Group (TU), for example, is abolishing the recruitment fees for workers in their factories that forced foreign migrants into bonded labour. Although these efforts have not completely solved the problems there are now the first signs of improvement. The US Department of State has recognized Thailand’s efforts in the fight against forced labour and human trafficking and has raised the country’s status accordingly. It was promoted to the higher “Tier 2 Watch List” in July 2016.

Conscious violation of internationally recognized employment standards

However, when examining the problem of inhumane working conditions it would be a big mistake to point a finger only at the fish industry in Thailand. A lot of workers, particularly migrants and itinerants are also subjected to exploitative practices in other regions of the world, both on board ships and on land. Illegal immigrants are particularly at risk for they rarely possess valid papers and are thus often without written work contracts, they have no social security or health insurance, and work under questionable conditions for a pittance. Language barriers and a low level of education make it more difficult for these workers to gain access to the regular job market. As “illegals” they have practically no protection and can thus hardly take action against violation of their rights, for example if they are not paid regularly or, even worse, not at all, or if they suffer lack of work protection measures or discrimination. Anyone who has to work under such precarious conditions mostly has little interest in participating in social dialogue or becoming active in a trade union and fighting for their rights. And that, in turn, weakens the ability of workers to influence the development of the company that employs them, its policy, or good governance mechanisms.

The fish industries of western countries are, of course, not without their own problems and work areas where improvements could be made, but the focus of criticism is on the developing countries where jobs in the fish sector are mostly marked by low wages, seasonality, poor access to professional job training, and low productivity. In the wake of these shortcomings and in the harsh competition for resources and markets the risk of overfishing increases as does the unsustainable use of natural resources. Anyone who consciously violates basic human rights and internationally-recognized work standards, who exploits their workers for their own profit, disregards their social security and dignity, will hardly shy from polluting or destroying the environment, from ignoring climate change, or from overfishing.

The large share of women on the staff of many seafood processing companies makes them “feminized” workplaces, and in recent times increasingly “ethnicized” workplaces.

Exploitation and IUU fishing often go hand in hand

A particularly shabby chapter in the catalogue of inhumane working conditions is child labour. According to investigations by the International Labour Organisation ILO child labour is still very widespread in some regions of the world and particularly in the fishery sector. Although this is a clear violation of the ILO Minimum Age Convention of 1973 such violations are rarely prosecuted or punished. Under pressure from global structural change in the fish industry – a result of increasing mechanisation and automation of personnel-intensive work processes – the number of people employed in the industry is sinking. In the fishing sector alone which is working to reduce fishing fleets and is geared to a more sustainable use of fish stocks and resources, nearly 1.5 million jobs have been lost since the turn of the millennium. That is why not few people are sooner willing to accept poorly paid, physically strenuous and often even health-damaging work. And this is particularly true in those regions of the world that have few other work and income opportunities to offer. Added to this is the fact that things are changing within the fish industry, too. In 1990 in the primary sector of raw materials production, 83 per cent of all jobs were in fishing but in 2014 it was only 67 per cent. At the same time jobs in the aquaculture sector rose from 17 to 33 per cent. However, working in the aquaculture sector demands certain qualifications which means that it is difficult to switch directly from fishing to fish farming.

There are various different reasons why one frequently finds inhumane working conditions on board fishing vessels, especially on deep sea vessels that are often at sea for several weeks or months at a time and are thus not easily controlled by the supervisory authorities. And particularly since some captains intentionally operate in remote regions to avoid the risk of possible inspections. Exploitation, ill treatment and precarious working conditions are not rarely linked with IUU fishing practices. But even if a fishing vessel is caught at sea violating working or fishing regulations criminal prosecution is often difficult because the vessels are mostly registered in “open registers” of third countries and thus operate outside of the regulated jurisdiction of a state.


For the duration of a worker’s time at sea the vessel is that person’s home, offering him accommodation, shelter, protection, food, work and income. If, however, basic labour standards, social standards and rules of human decency are consciously or unconsciously violated this set-up breaks down. It is then not rare that the fishermen are at the mercy of the vessel’s captain and to an unacceptable degree open to economic and social risks. The punishment workers have to face can include partial or complete withholding of payment, physical violence, forcing the fishermen to work longer hours, ignoring tiredness and safety standards and, imprisoned within this structure, the worker will probably tend to take more risks. Fishing is known to be one of the most dangerous work areas worldwide. It is estimated that there are about 24,000 fatal work accidents per year, and the number of injuries is likely to be considerably higher.

Globalisation increases cost pressures and encourages exploitation

The international seafood market has changed dramatically in recent years and demand for fresh fish and processed products or ready meals has grown continually. Retail chains and supermarkets have become the main buyers of fish and seafood. Their daily business demands regular supply with products that have been produced according to uniform, consistently high quality standards. This has, on the one hand, extended the range and content of fish processing. Whilst in the past this rarely meant more than filleting and freezing, much more highly processed products are demanded today and even ready-to-cook or ready-to eat variants. On the other hand, globalisation has led to work-intensive or personnel-intensive processes in fish processing being moved to different geographical regions of the world in which there are still enough workers available and where wage costs are relatively low. And as things lie at the moment that means the developing countries.

This outsourcing of processing capacities at regional and global level has both positive and negative effects. It is positive, for example, that more countries are integrated into the international supply chain for this leads to jobs and income being created locally. Apart from that, global business with fish and seafood ensures that modern production methods and internationally binding quality, hygiene and safety standards are implemented in these countries. Among the negative effects are the fact that jobs in the countries where the products are bought are lost, that global climate suffers under increased transports, and that often exploitation of large numbers of workers in the production countries is encouraged. The low transport costs and low wages in some countries make it profitable, for example, to carry whole frozen fishes from Europe and North America to Asia, in particular to China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, to quickly thaw and fillet them there, and then refreeze them before they begin the return journey.

Europe’s fish industry losing more and more jobs

Nearly two thirds of the fish and seafood products consumed in EU countries come from non-EU member states. Basically the situation of workers in the national fish industries of the EU are of course not comparable with those in developing countries but here, too, there are unsolved problems, if at a different level. The fish industry accounts for less than 1% of gross national income of the EU and the number of people working in fisheries, aquaculture and processing is about 260,000 which is about 0.12% of the workforce. Although there are big differences from region to region in Europe with regard to dependence on fishing it is only very rare that more than 10 per cent of the work force are to be found in this sector. In
structurally weak regions there are hardly any opportunities, however, to find other work. The fishing sector is shrinking. In the last decade before the turn of the millennium employment in fishing in the EU fell by 20% and in the processing sector by 10%. That was equal to a total loss of 60,000 jobs, spread differently over the member states. Whilst job losses in Denmark and Spain were particularly severe, there was even an increase in the number of jobs in Greece.

Council Regulation No. 3760/92 lays down the complex details of the EU’s common fishery policy (CFP). For example, the preservation of endangered stocks must be ensured whilst at the same time safeguarding the fishery’s continued existence. The member states are called upon to reduce fleet capacities whilst at the same time maintaining jobs. EU fishermen are assured an adequate level of income although supply through EU landings is declining and the EU is increasingly dependent on imports. The principles supported by the EU include non-discrimination (Article 34 EGV). The fish industry is particularly affected by this for in the sectors fishing, aquaculture and processing at least 100,000 women are employed Europe-wide and their work is often considered precarious. Women are often employed only for a short time to buffer seasonal peak times, and shift work and longer working hours are then common. Although in the fish processing sector women usually do the same work as men they are mostly paid less. In small family businesses a lot of women are not even officially employed, that is to say they work without remuneration, social insurance and pension schemes. In most EU countries the weekly working time is 40 hours which is, however, rarely observed in the fish industry.  When seasonal peaks demand longer working hours larger companies generally grant compensation or pay overtime premiums. There are also differences in holiday times which are usually graduated according to a person’s length of service and age and are generally between 25 and 30 days in Europe. The workers are expressly encouraged to take their annual leave at times of low work load.

Inhumane working conditions are often found on board deep sea vessels that are at sea for a long time and are thus difficult to monitor.

Employment in the fish processing sector is not very attractive

Companies operating throughout the fish industry are constantly in need of workers who can react flexibly to the sector’s variable demands. But although unemployment is relatively high in a lot of coastal regions of Europe companies seem to have difficulty filling vacancies. The image and social status of a job in fish processing are low, the work in damp, cold rooms and the smell of fish are not very attractive for domestic workers. This leads to fish factories that were traditionally “feminized”, in more recent times becoming “ethnicized”. A lot of fish processing companies have a particularly high share of workers with a migrant background at their gutting tables and conveyor belts. This is, for one thing, because the work rarely demands much qualification or language skills, and for another because regular employment is often the prerequisite for permanent residency and a source of regular income enables a certain standard of living. The wages paid in the fish processing sector reflect the economic situation of the European countries and the cost of living in those countries. In order to maintain minimum standards most states have in the meantime introduced legal minimum wages that vary strongly however from country to country. In Hungary, for example, the minimum wage is well below 300 euros per month, in Cyprus companies pay about 700 euros, and in Germany, where in the meantime every tenth employee works in the low pay sector hourly wages of 8.50 euros are required by law. Additional holiday allowance is not usual everywhere and in some European countries there is no payment on public holidays.

It goes without saying that the problems of workers in developing countries where one often has to fight child labour and forced labour, discrimination and financial exploitation, are completely different from those in Europe. But here, too, there is still quite a lot do. In the year 2015 the governments of nearly all states committed themselves in Addis Ababa to provide sufficiently productive work, to create humane work for everyone and in particular to promote small and medium sized enterprises. Humane working conditions are an elementary human right that is an integral part of sustainability, good governance and ethical behaviour.

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