Seafaring slavery aboard Chinese fishing vessels in the Indo-Pacific

Over the course of this year, separate incidents of alleged forced labour, trafficking, disappearances and killings aboard Chinese fishing vessels around Southeast Asia have led to growing pressure to tackle the rampant human rights abuses being conducted at sea

Rebekah Baynard-Smith
December 29, 2020
Seafaring slavery aboard Chinese fishing vessels in the Indo-Pacific
Suspects (in white striped shirts), allegedly linked to the death of an Indonesian sailor aboard a Chinese fishing vessel, facing a wall while presented to the media during a police press conference in Batam on July 25. Photo: AFP/Andaru

Video footage went viral in May showing bodies of dead Indonesian fishermen thrown overboard Chinese fishing vessels, specifically from Long Xing 629, a high-sea boat of the Dalian Ocean Fishing Company. Between December 2019 and April 2020, four crew members for this company died at sea from an ‘unidentified illness’, though reports from surviving crew tell of slavery-like conditions leading to these deaths.

The May incident was just the beginning of a string of reports that emerged during the course of the year, with further accounts of torture, death and mistreatment aboard vessels like Long Xing 629 operating throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Over the course of the year, separate incidents of alleged forced labour, trafficking, disappearances and killings aboard Chinese fishing vessels around the region instigated an array of political and social responses, from intergovernmental accusations, recruiter charges, vessel seizures, bi-lateral investigations and media coverage. The mounting reports even pushed Chinese fish products into America’s 2020 ‘List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor’.

The ‘symptoms’ characterising forced labour in this industry often include workers being assaulted, overworked, underfed, forced to drink filtered seawater, withheld payments and denied access to their personal documentation. As the largest distant-water fishing power on the planet, China’s fishing fleets have the highest rates of forced fishing labour, often in tandem with illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

It’s becoming clearer that the Covid-19 pandemic has made exploitation at sea easier as fishers are forced to travel further and for longer periods as a result of economic uncertainties

More poignantly, migrant workers on whom the industry relies, typically from Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia, bear the worst of these ‘symptoms’. Not only do they often enter contracts they don’t understand, battling language and cultural barriers, but the remoteness of the work naturally distances them from social networks, support, official regulations and presence of authority which would typically help ensure and promote safe working conditions.

It’s becoming clearer that the Covid-19 pandemic has made exploitation at sea easier as fishers are forced to travel further and for longer periods as a result of economic uncertainties. Greater transshipments combined with fewer checks and docking, due to tighter border controls, have prevented workers from exercising their rights to adequate breaks, exit their contract or escape from dangerous situations. Migrant workers aboard ships face exclusion from Covid-19 support provided by their home government, and face added pressure from their families relying on their incomes more than usual.

Officials transferring the body of an Indonesian crew member found on board following the search of a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel on July 8. Photo: AFP/Teguh Prihatna

Human rights abuses in its fishing industry add to the extensive list of other human rights issues tainting China’s contemporary global reputation.

Issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have highlighted a consistent struggle faced by many governments, activists, NGOs and civil society groups around the world, in calling China out for violations of fundamental safeguards. In response to the mistreatment and deaths of its seafarers aboard Chinese fleets, Jakarta’s attempts to address the issues have so far been met with aversion by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating the incidents as “unfortunate” and the sea burials in line with maritime code.

China’s attempts to clamp down on poor labour conditions aboard Chinese fleets have recently included a suite of new rules Beijing introduced in April 2020. Aimed at harsher punishment, greater vessel monitoring, new port management procedures and stricter certification requirements; these ambitious goals have so far yielded few results. In fact, although technically coming into effect in April, the incidents in May and the following events throughout the year highlight the difficulty in regulating the industry especially due to the distant nature of the work and the limitations of such rules outside of Chinese ports or economic zones. In addition to awaiting progress from these rules, we are yet to see companies owning vessels like Long Xing 629 be publicly blacklisted based on these incidents.

The sheer volume of operational Chinese vessels and their track record for unsustainable practices and ill-treatment of crew, particularly migrant workers, begs the question of what further role the international community can and should play in holding the Chinese fishing industry to account and improving policies and practices at regional and global levels. For example, in their 2019 report, C4ADS found that enforcement of international standards in the Indo-Pacific region requires greater support from authorities onshore, as off-shore measures have shown to be ineffective.

ASEAN has been working towards leveraging their collective position in the region to stand up for human, labour and environmental rights, including through the five-year Australia-Asia Programme to Combat Trafficking in Persons. However, alongside multilateral efforts, the ASEAN governments have a long way to go in consolidating their own measures for improving the fishing industry and its workers. Jakarta, for example, developed a system in 2015 for fishing companies to obtain certification for human rights protection, however five years on, no company has been certified.

This year’s string of incidents aboard Chinese fishing fleets serves as harsh reminders of the unethical and unsustainable practices persistent in the industry. It’s a fresh call to action for governments, consumers and activists in the region to continue in their efforts to uphold decent work standards within the industry, protect migrant workers and, where possible, stem forced fishing labour by holding China to account.

Rebekah Baynard-Smith is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. This piece was originally published on Insights and republished with the permission of YAIA.

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