Ellie Matthew – January 2024

They say that in space, no one can hear you scream — but is this also the case for the ocean? Over the last decade, increased research into the conditions onboard commercial fishing vessels indicates a global human rights issue on several levels; one that largely goes unnoticed. 

Workers on land are generally protected by laws and unions to ensure their working conditions meet health and safety regulations. However, for those working on board vessels far out to sea, more often than not, this is not the case where there is a lack of laws that protect the workers’ wages and also their safety on board the boats. It’s this lack of regulation and monitoring which results in a number of human rights abuses. Forced labour, slavery, physical, and emotional abuse, are all happening on a global scale. 

Why is it going unnoticed? As fish stocks in coastal waters became depleted, efforts went into creating boats that could fish further for longer. Longline fishing vessels can spend months, even years, at sea. Designed to travel great distances on the high seas, longline vessels make use of carrier vessels to bring them supplies and send off their catch to land, a process known as transshipment. These brief interactions with other vessels and lack of contact with land leaves the crew vulnerable to human rights abuses. Additionally, many of the workers upon these vessels are migrants, not speaking the language of their captain, or in some cases any of the other people on board. This pattern is allowing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing to thrive. IUU fishing leads to a whole host of other issues as well as human rights such as overfishing, drugs, weapons, human trafficking and other criminal offences. 

Perhaps the most famous case of human rights issues aboard these fishing vessels is the story of Lang Long, a Cambodian man working aboard a Thai boat. It was a security guard named Som Nang on one of these ‘motherships’ supplying the Thai fishing vessel who was horrified to see Lang Long shackled by the neck to the deck of the boat and was haunted by his whisper ‘Help me’. Lang Long had this rusty collar around his neck, attached to an anchor post for several years. With the help from a company back on land, Som Nang managed to raise enough money to pay the captain for Lang Long’s release. This phenomenal story started to paint the picture of what was really going on at sea, but this was just one security guard — how else can we make a difference? 

There are lots of projects underway to try and improve the issue around the world, from large scale operations involving the Food and Agriculture Organisation in the United Nations, to projects on the ground helping fishers and their families get from one day to the next. An example of this is the Human Dignity Group. Based in Fiji, this organisation is fighting against human trafficking and for seamen’s rights. Their work takes many forms, from supplying new clean mattresses to the crew of a tuna longline vessel, assisting injured crew or widowed families apply for compensation, to allowing fishers to attend the Fiji Maritime Academy (FMA) to improve their knowledge of safety at sea. 

SFACT has been able to help with the latter, funding a number of Fijians to attend the FMA to gain their seafarer certificate. The academy teaches them skills such as first aid, personal safety, and fire-fighting, and completion of the course provides fishers with a Seaman’s Employment Record Book – a log book to record their experiences at sea. Many fishers desire to have such a logbook but have been unable to find the funds: SFACT has been able to help. The work of the Human Dignity Group is vital, fighting for fishers and families in Fiji and all the while trying to provoke change on a national level and beyond. 

You can read more about the Human Dignity Group’s work in the Samudra Report of 2023 here.

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