Cornell University: Ship detained after ILR workshop on labor abuse among fishers

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A fishing vessel suspected of engaging in labor abuses was detained by the South African government on Aug. 3, days after a workshop led by the International Labour Organization in collaboration with the ILR School.

It was the first such action by the South African government in nearly five years.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that shoppers pay more attention to the fish than the fishers,” said Jason Judd, executive director of the New Conversations Project. “And although trade policy in the U.S. and the ‘ethical trade’ codes of seafood retailers protect fishers from forced labor, for example, they’re not effectively enforced. So it’s good to see the South African government putting to use what the ILO and Cornell are teaching, and good to see SAMSA acting on reports of labor abuses on fishing vessels.”

Dangerous working conditions and labor abuses in commercial fishing are common around the world. But enforcement actions to protect fishers are not. So the detention of the Taiwanese-flagged vessel with a largely Indonesian and Filipino crew – with a detention order noting likely violations of safety and health standards and problems with fishers’ pay and contracts – was hailed by labor experts.

The inspection and detention of the fishing vessel by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) in Durban came within days of a labor inspection workshop led by the International Labour Organization in collaboration with the ILR School’s New Conversations Project in Cape Town. The South African government detained the foreign-flagged fishing vessel based on a tip from a labor rights organization over concerns regarding worker safety.

“It’s one thing to read case studies and talk about these concepts and new tools. It’s something else to test them out. So we went onto three fishing vessels – two foreign-flagged, one South African – in the Cape Town port for practice inspections,” Judd said. “We also covered two other difficult topics: cooperation between agencies and tightening up enforcement regimes. It’s good to see it coming together like that in Durban.”

The four-day training brought together roughly 50 people who work in South African government agencies connected to the fishing industry – including labor, maritime safety and immigration – and unions and worker rights organizations.

The workshop used the ILO’s Work in Fishing ILO Convention, 2007 and SAMSA’s inspection protocols to shore up detection of labor violations under South African law and to ensure that fishers, receive, among other things:

improved occupational safety and health and medical care at sea, and shore care for sick or injured fishers
sufficient rest for their health and safety
protection of a written work agreement
same social security protection as other workers
In the workshop, Judd taught how to identify forced labor in fishing and presented two new tools under development with the ILO to help assess fishing crews, working conditions and labor protections. The first is a checklist of quantitative measures used to estimate the likelihood of forced labor risk on boats, such as assessing if the vessel does not have enough personnel, has been at sea for an extended period of time, or is providing suspiciously uniform reporting of hours of rest for its crew. The second tool establishes employer and supervisor interview protocols and tools to pinpoint labor practices and flag possible abuses.

SAMSA reported in mid-August that the vessel was released after the owner and fishers resolved a range of issues, including training of the crew, staffing of the vessel, treating an injured and hospitalized fisher, reconciling outstanding payments and more. “But costs for flying home were borne by fishers themselves,” Judd said. “So it was not a total success but, for SAMSA, a step forward and we hope other governments will follow suit.”

The New Conversations Project and ILO published in 2022 an analysis of changes in work in fishing in Southeast Asia in the COVID pandemic and, again with the ILO, proposes to take the new tools and protocols to Peru and Ecuador and Southeast Asia.

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