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Slavery on the High Seas

Updated on June 23, 2016
Dinky fishing boats like these are often the ones used to catch much of the fish used in cat food, and much of the shrimp caught in South East Asia.
Dinky fishing boats like these are often the ones used to catch much of the fish used in cat food, and much of the shrimp caught in South East Asia.

The Situation

Thousands of young men and boys are working in slavery on the high seas in Thailand, and no one is doing anything about it. They are bonded by debt that they are tricked into accruing, and their "wages" are $200 per month, working 18 hour days, with no overtime and only very basic needs met. The situation makes it so it is nearly impossible to work your way to freedom without escaping or someone buying you.

Sure, there are organizations like Stella Maris who occasionally get cases of extreme abuse and start raising money to literally buy some slaves their freedom. And while this seems like a noble effort, given that the cost of buying a top quality, an experienced worker is about 750-1000 dollars, these organizations don't do nearly enough in the big picture.

While the simple approach would be for a large organization to take notice and raise maybe a couple million dollars and free all the slaves, or to get the Thai government to actually do something about the situation, I feel as if there are economic solutions that could be reached, to the benefit of both the workers on the ships, the captains of the ships, the Thai government and possibly even the consumers in America.

How is this Happening?

South East Asia has a reputation for civil rights violations, but slavery in the region is a deeply rooted systemic problem. Many of the fishing agencies are forced to offer very low wages, and due to this, many natives can find better paying and much safer jobs on land. So, these fishing boat captains resort to having work agencies traffic slaves from other countries to work on their ships as bound labor.

This relationship between captain and worker is very tense and inefficient. The captain often beats and drives his workers like cattle. Stories of sick workers being cast overboard or marooned on an abandoned island for weeks at a time, while the defiant get beheaded and the insubordinate get thrown into the hold, aren't very uncommon on the high seas, yet stories of gruesome mutinies are also told. The workers, being migrants from other countries, usually don't speak the same language as the captain or any of the other workers, making for an uneasy and abusive relationship.

You would think that there would be some sort of resistance or boycott by American consumers, but the truth is, fish is usually untraceable to the slave ships on the high seas. Although once fish are stored on a "mothership", a large vessel that acts as a sort of rest station on the seas, they get regulated to a certain extent, it is almost impossible to tell where the fish came from. Since regulations on maritime labor laws are very underdeveloped and laws being almost impossible to enforce on the high seas, captains are rarely put on trial or prosecuted for their actions, and slaves , due to their illegal migrant status, are rarely rescued by authorities.

Since regulations on maritime labor laws are very underdeveloped and laws being almost impossible to enforce on the high seas, captains are rarely put on trial or prosecuted for their actions, and slaves , due to their illegal migrant status, are rarely rescued by authorities.

If there is any reason for this system of slavery, it is economics. Demand for fish across the globe is at an all-time high due to the prevalence of coastal diets, yet fishing stocks in most oceans are at an all time low due to overfishing and premature catches. This makes for a bad situation for both consumer and fishermen.

The fishermen, struggling to meet demand, due to low fish stocks and weighed down by high fuel prices, need to make ends meet by hiring slave labor and catching as much fish as possible, with quality coming second. The consumers, while prices remain low, are sometimes met with bad product and the guilt of buying from a corporation that uses slave labor as one of its sources.

The main reason for slave labor is just economics. Supply is low, due to over-exploitation of fish stocks, and demand is as high as ever. To make ends meet, fishermen have to hire extremely cheap labor, much of which is considered slavery.
The main reason for slave labor is just economics. Supply is low, due to over-exploitation of fish stocks, and demand is as high as ever. To make ends meet, fishermen have to hire extremely cheap labor, much of which is considered slavery.
The goals and concepts of the EAFM are mainly to promote sustainability, strong regulation and human well being.
The goals and concepts of the EAFM are mainly to promote sustainability, strong regulation and human well being. | Source
Here are the main principles of the EAFM.
Here are the main principles of the EAFM. | Source

EAFM: The Solution to the Problem

The Essential Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) is a system of fishery management for a world moving forward. While it is quite common in America and other developed nations, it is not very prevalent in South East Asia.

There are many principles in EAFM, but the main one I'm going to focus on is good governance, the most important one.

The key to the solution to the problem of slavery on the high seas are the aforementioned "motherships". The motherships are the only place where all ships on the high seas must go for supplies or fuel and to sell their catch. This makes them the perfect way for the Thai government, and possibly even the United Nations to enforce laws of labor and promote a standard quality for fish for consumers.

Here's How it Would Work:

  • The Thai government would have to issue fishing licenses for all fishermen that go out of port, binding them under law to comply with labor laws and quality control
  • The Thai government would put officers on the motherships that check the quality on the ships when they go to dock for fuel and supplies
  • The licenses would serve to control quality and enforce labor, while also trying to preserve fish stocks by limiting the amount of fishing boats
  • This would be achieved by an international standard for quality and price for the forage fish that the Thai boats fish for
  • Although this might increase the cost of cat food by perhaps 20-30%, it would mean and increase in quality and a massive decrease in slave labor

The Results:

  • Less or no more slavery on fishing boats in SE Asia
  • More regulations on the quality of fish for American consumers
  • The cat food industry is generally a luxury market, and something that will change in demand if there is a price change, possibly decreasing the demand for fish and replenishing stocks
  • Higher government control in Thailand
  • Elimination fo human trafficking in the region
  • Price increase for cat food and other forage fish

In conclusion, more government regulation, along with more enforcement of laws can solve the issue of human trafficking and slave labor in South East Asia.

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