Hazardous, forced work conditions sometimes akin to slavery have been detected on nearly 500 industrial fishing vessels around the world, but identifying those responsible for abuses at sea is hampered by a lack of transparency and regulatory oversight, a new report concluded.
The research by the Financial Transparency Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that tracks illicit money flows, is the most comprehensive attempt to date to identify the companies operating vessels where tens of thousands of workers every year are estimated to be trapped in unsafe conditions.
The report, published on Wednesday, found that a quarter of vessels suspected of abusing workers were flagged to China, whose distant water fleet dominates fishing on the high seas, traditionally lawless areas beyond the jurisdiction of any single country. Vessels from Taiwan, Russia, Spain, Thailand and South Korea were also accused of mistreatment of fishers.
Forced labor in the seafood industry is a rarely seen but common phenomenon, one increasingly recognized as a “widespread human rights crisis,” according to the report’s authors. The Associated Press in 2015 uncovered the plight of thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who were abused while employed on Thai vessels, whose catch often ended up in the US.
Globally, as many as 128,000 fishers face threats of violence, debt bondage, excessive overtime and other conditions indicative of forced labor, according to the UN’s International Labor Organization.
US and European companies are under increasing pressure to clean up supply chains in labor-intensive industries where worker abuse is widespread. The Financial Action Task Force set up by the G7 wealthiest democracies has identified illegal logging and mining as a key driver of money laundering and encouraged its members to set up publicly available databases to raise awareness about the financial flows that fuel environmental crimes.
However, the seafood industry has so far escaped the same scrutiny, in part because governments often lack the tools to regulate what takes place hundreds of miles from land. This week, US President Joe Biden’s administration decided to abandon a planned expansion of the flagship Seafood Import Monitoring Program used to prevent illegal fishing and forced labor on foreign vessels, which supply about 80 percent of the seafood that Americans eat.
“We are once again seeing the heartbreaking reality of what is happening on some commercial fishing vessels out at sea and it’s completely unacceptable,” conservation group Oceana’s US branch vice president Beth Lowell said about the report, which she had no role in. “Forced labor and other human rights abuses should not be the cost for a seafood dinner.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Tuesday that it decided to shelve the planned expansion after receiving public feedback on the proposed rule changes and would instead focus its attention on improving the impact of the current import monitoring program, which covers around 1,100 species.
Another obstacle to transparency: Offenders are frequently licensed by governments such as Belize and Panama with reputations for financial secrecy and minimal oversight of their fishing fleets. Of the vessels suspected of abuse and whose ownership could be identified by the Financial Transparency Coalition, 18 percent were companies that flew so-called flags of convenience to avoid careful examination and hide their shareholder structure.
The report identified two Chinese companies — Zhejiang Hairong Ocean Fisheries Co and Pingtan Marine Enterprises — as the worst offenders, with 10 and seven vessels, respectively, accused of human rights violations. A third company, the state-owned China National Fisheries Corp, had five.
None of the companies responded to AP’s request for comment. However, Zhejiang Hairong in a statement last year to the state-owned Fujian Daily claimed ownership of only five of the 10 vessels that would later appear on the Financial Transparency Coalition’s list. Pingtan was sanctioned last year by the Biden administration over allegations of illegal fishing and labor abuse, and later saw its shares delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.
The Financial Transparency Coalition scoured government reports, media accounts and complaints by advocacy groups to come up with a list of 475 individual vessels suspected of forced labor since 2010. Of that amount, flag information was available for only about half of the total — another indication of the need for greater ownership transparency, the group says.
AP Reporter Fu Ting in Washington, and AP researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing contributed. This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has a good reason to avoid a split vote against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in next month’s presidential election. It has been here before and last time things did not go well. Taiwan had its second direct presidential election in 2000 and the nation’s first ever transition of political power, with the KMT in opposition for the first time. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was ushered in with less than 40 percent of the vote, only marginally ahead of James Soong (宋楚瑜), the candidate of the then-newly formed People First Party (PFP), who got almost 37
At their recent summit in San Francisco, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made progress in a few key areas. Notably, they agreed to resume direct military-to-military communications — which China had suspended last year, following a visit by then-speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan — to reduce the chances of accidental conflict. However, neither leader was negotiating from a particularly strong position: As Biden struggles with low approval ratings, Xi is overseeing a rapidly weakening economy. The economic news out of China has been poor for some time. Growth is slowing;
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate and New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) has called on his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) counterpart, William Lai (賴清德), to abandon his party’s Taiwanese independence platform. Hou’s remarks follow an article published in the Nov. 30 issue of Foreign Affairs by three US-China relations academics: Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas Christensen. They suggested that the US emphasize opposition to any unilateral changes in the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and that if Lai wins the election, he should consider freezing the Taiwanese independence clause. The concept of de jure independence was first
Ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service on Tuesday last week cut its outlook for China’s credit rating to “negative” from “stable,” citing risks from a slowing economy, increasing local government debts and a continued slump in the Chinese property market. Wasting little time, the agency on Wednesday also downgraded its credit outlooks for Hong Kong and Macau to “negative” from “stable,” citing the territories’ tight political, institutional, economic and financial linkages with China. While Moody’s reaffirmed its “A1” sovereign rating for China, the outlook downgrade was its first for the country since 2017, reflecting the agency’s pessimistic view of China’s mounting debts