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Will the EU ban on forced labour finally clean up fisheries in Southeast Asia?

30 September 2022

The long-awaited proposed EU ban on products made with forced labour published on 14 September, is shaking up the fisheries sector in Southeast Asia notorious for labour issues.

Issues in marine and aquaculture fisheries have troubled the region for years. Despite reports of forced labour and abuse on fishing boats, the problem continues to this day harming the reputation of the entire sector. Some persistent problems include debt-driven forced labour, not being allowed to leave the boat or call family for years on end, and 16-hour workdays in shrimp factories.

In addition, the sector is marred by rampant illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing between US$10 to US$23 billion annually.

Attempts to increase monitoring and stamp out the problems have been insufficient, to say the least. In 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 248 fishermen in Thailand, mostly migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia and found that Thailand’s “labor [sic] inspection regime is largely a theatrical exercise for international consumption”. In some instances government officials are bribed to look the other way, the New York Times reported.

As a result, the US Department of Labor lists shrimp, fresh fish or dried fish from Myanmar, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Bangladesh as high risk for involving forced labour “in violation of international standards”.

Gaps in seafood trade data have historically indicated significant IUU fishing in the region. For example, Thailand said it imported US$181.9 million worth of seafood from Myanmar in 2020, while Myanmar said it exported US$317.3 million to Thailand, indicating a reporting gap of US$ 135.4 million.

Forced labour and illegal trade are expected to increase in Myanmar due to the economic decline and impunity of perpetrators since the coup d’état of 1 February 2021. According to the United Nations Special Envoy of the Secretary-General, Noeleen Heyzer the risk of human trafficking increased. In July, Deutsche Welle reported how involuntary work, debt and coercion practices “resurfaced” among Myanmar migrants in the Thai fishing sector after the pandemic and coup.

The Myanmar junta and the Thai government, which both came into power initially after a military coup, are discussing the issue. On 20 June 2022, both met online for the 5th Meeting of the Joint Working Group on fisheries cooperation. The agenda included “[c]ooperation in preventing IUU fishing”.

On the ground, IUU fishing appears to be negatively impacted by the recent developments in Myanmar. In northern Myanmar, illegal fishing almost doubled between February and September 2021 according to the regional Fisheries Federation. Illegal fishing boats take advantage of the reduction in patrols from once a month before the coup, to every six months now. In October 2021, the military junta transferred the responsibility for environmental protection from the navy to the newly created coastguard, which only has four vessels.

Regardless of the specific location, fisheries around the globe are considered by the EU as an industry at high risk of negative environmental consequences.

The newly proposed ban works in sync with the already adopted EU Corporate Sustainability Directive to combat negative human rights and environmental impact along the entire supply chain. The Directive requires additional reporting requirements for high-risk sectors such as agriculture, garments, electronic devices, minerals and fisheries.

Marine, fresh water and aquaculture fisheries are included and would be subject to additional “sector-specific standards” requiring “the disclosure of nature-related impacts on and risks for biodiversity and ecosystems” including for small and medium companies.

Both regulations taken together could contribute significantly to finally stamping out illegal fish caught by slaves ending up on the plates of European consumers if implemented and enforced properly. The EU ban will be debated in the next months and become law 24 months after a possible adoption.

For the ban to have the desired impact, several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are calling for the burden of proof to be placed on the companies suspected of involvement in forced labour as opposed to national authorities which are already stretched thin. This would allow the EU to truly ban the import of suspected tainted products at the border, as opposed to investigating products after they are already imported and sold to consumers.

For example, MEP Anna Cavazzini calls for pre-emptively stopping them at the border if there is “reasonable suspicion”. And MEP Yannick Jadot refers to the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act in his assessment of the proposed EU ban: “We must do what the United States and Canada did so that when there is a suspicion of forced labour, it is up to the company to prove that it does not use forced labour in its production.”

On the supply side, increased transparency and monitoring are also needed to make sure only clean fish enters the EU. The Environmental Justice Foundation recommends the public reporting of fishing licences, ownership of vessels, vessel tracking data, and fines and guilty verdicts for fisheries crimes.

And in its landmark agreement countering IUU fishing, the World Trade Organization recommends countries report on the provided subsidies in the sector, including the fleet capacity, vessel names and numbers, catch data per species, the status of fish stocks, as well as conservation and management measures in place.

Only by addressing the supply and demand of tainted fish, can illegal fishing and forced labour finally be stopped.

Article by Anrike Visser.
With research by Sam Naujokas, C4ADS.

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