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We have banned slavery on land – how about the ocean?

By Obiageli Ezekwesili
Posted on Tuesday, 20 August 2013 11:20

Contractual rights, fairer wages, a safer working environment – all testimony to welcome progress made. At the extreme end of the scale, we saw slavery made illegal in every country in the world.

Apart from the benefits these developments brought to individual workers and their families, they helped to build a foundation for the equitable and sustainable development we need in the 21st Century.

I would find it impossible to wear a dress that I knew had been made by slave labour.

I am happy to tell you that today [20th August], a long-awaited international agreement comes into force that extends benefits to another group of workers – the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

It will secure rights for an estimated 1.1 million seafarers around the world, primarily on merchant vessels and passenger ships.

Congratulations to them, and to the government ministers and International Labour Organization officials (ILO) who have pursued the goal from 2001, when negotiations began, to the present day.

Yet my welcome is tinged with regret at an opportunity missed; because the number of seafarers who will benefit from the Convention is far outweighed by the number who will not. And the ones missing out are the ones most in need of assistance.

While slavery has been banned around the world, it has not been eliminated.

An estimated 12-27 million people still work in conditions that qualify as slavery. Sometimes their appalling lot comes into view, when journalists delve into the darkest realities of textile manufacturing, for example, or the sex trade.

More often, it stays hidden.

Torture, Beatings, Imprisonment, Killings

One workplace where slavery is almost always ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is on fishing vessels.

Globally, an estimated 30 million people are engaged in fishing the ocean.

Many are properly contracted and well remunerated; for some, fishing is a calling, not just a job. But the least fortunate experience a very different reality.

The International Office for Migration reports that some workers on fishing vessels in Asia ‘are expected to work 18 to 20 hours of back-breaking manual labour per day, seven days per week’, without proper sleeping accommodation or toilets.

Civil society organisations such as the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) have interviewed some of those forced to work on vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

They discovered truly chilling cases involving torture, beatings, imprisonment and killings.

Of his experience in Thailand, a Burmese crewman related: ‘The brokers told me that if I did not want to go [to sea], I should look at this gun because I could be killed very easily. They said a bullet only costs 12 baht (US$0.40).’

In my area of the world, West Africa, EJF found both Sierra Leoneans and Senegalese working on board fishing vessels in vile conditions: taken on without contracts, made to sleep next to the fish hold, paid in waste fish rather than cash, with 14-year-old boys forced to work for three months at a time on board rusting vessels far from shore.

Fishing vessels are generally exempt from agreements under the UN’s International Maritime Organization, which has a number of implications.

One is seaworthiness; IUU vessels are often poorly maintained, and death by sinking is as much of a risk as death by beating.

Another problem is accountability. On the rare occasions when abuses come to light and authorities mount prosecutions, it is usually impossible to track down the vessel’s real owner.

Having co-founded the renowned global anti-corruption body Transparency International, I can say it is tragic but not surprising to find that corruption is also a factor obstructing justice.

There is no reliable estimate of the number of fishers forced to work in these conditions. But if we consider that IUU vessels are estimated to take about one-fifth of the global fish catch, we can see that the number of people engaged is probably large.

Equally clear is that some of the fish certainly ends up being eaten in countries that pride themselves on a good human rights record.

This year, I joined the Global Ocean Commission, an international initiative aiming to restore the global ocean to full ecological health and productivity.

Through my work with the Commission, it has become abundantly clear to me that there are many reasons for wanting to curb IUU fishing.

It would aid the sustainable management of fish stocks and thus help conserve ocean life.

It would bring social benefits, increase tax revenues and boost national security; as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has noted, illegal fishing vessels are often used for transporting weapons and drugs.

Recruited at knifepoint

Some governments are tackling IUU fishing through a number of methods: increasing policing of the sea, stamping out corruption, empowering legitimate fishers to report wrong-doing, and implementing measures that trace fish from net to plate.

The Global Ocean Commission is calling for mandatory use of tracking equipment on all high seas fishing vessels and for nations to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, which requires port authorities to inspect foreign-flagged fishing vessels and close their harbours or take action against vessels suspected of operating illegally.

If these measures succeed, they will bring some improvements in the lot of fishers.

But the history of the MLC shows that there is real merit in tackling the labour issue head on.

The initiative to develop it came jointly from ship owners and seafarers’ unions.

For unions, the motive was obvious; for ship owners, it was recognition that without a global standard, reputable operators would be undercut by unscrupulous rivals.

The MLC leveled the playing field. The same, now, is true for the fishing industry.

I would find it impossible to wear a dress that I knew had been made by slave labour.

The revulsion at knowing that the fish on my plate had been caught by beaten and battered children, recruited at knifepoint, would be far, far greater.

The problem is that we don’t know when we are served with such a fish.

Global labour standards for the fishing industry would help guarantee slavery-free seafood, and take us along the road to a slavery-free ocean.

So let us celebrate the Maritime Labour Convention – but let us also vow to extend its benefits to those who most need it.

Obiageli Ezekwesili is member of the Global Ocean Commission, an independent high-level initiative aiming to restore the high seas, the international parts of the global ocean, to ecological health and sustainable productivity. She is a former Nigerian Education Minister, a former Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, and a co-founder of Transparency International

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