1 in 4 fishing vessels accused of forced labour owned by European companies, a quarter flagged to China

November 15th, 2023

LONDON – 22.5% of industrial and semi-industrial fishing vessels accused of forced labour were owned by European companies,topped by Spain, Russia and UK firms, according to a new report by the Financial Transparency Coalition – a group of 11 NGOs from across the world.

Read the executive summary.

Read the full report.

Listen to: interview with BBC World Service – Focus on Africa

Read coverage from: Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) / Mongabay

The report entitled “Dark webs: uncovering those behind forced labour on fishing fleetsthe most extensive analysis of forced labour abuses in commercial fishing vessels to date, also found that companies from just five countries – China, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and Spain – own almost two-thirds of accused vessels for which legal ownership data is available. 

In total, 128,000 fishers, mostly from the global South, were trapped in forced labour aboard fishing vessels in 2021, often in the high seas, although the true figure could be much greater, according to the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO).  They suffered abuses ranging from physical violence and debt bondage to abusive working conditions.

Matti Kohonen, executive director of the Financial Transparency Coalition, says: “Forced labour aboard commercial fishing vessels is a human rights crisis, affecting more than 100,000 fishers every year, leading to horrific abuses and even deaths among fishers who mainly come from global South regions like south-east Asia and Africa. Yet those owning these vessels mostly hide behind complex, cross-jurisdictional corporate structures ranging from shell companies to opaque joint ventures.”

Other report key findings include:

  • More than 40 percent of industrial and semi-industrial fishing vessels accused of forced labour operated in Asia, followed by Africa (21%), Europe (14%) and LAC (11%). 
  • A quarter of accused vessels were flagged to China, whilst 1/5 carried flags of convenience which have lax controls, financial secrecy and low or non-existent taxes.
  • Top 10 companies own 1 in 9 vessels accused of forced labour. Of these, seven are from China – some partly owned by the Chinese government, – two from South Korea and one from Russia.
  • Indonesia emerges as the global hotspot for forced labour cases, with nearly one-fourth of detected vessels operating in its waters. In addition, 45% of accused vessels operated or were detected in just five countries: Indonesia, Ireland, Uruguay, Somalia and Thailand.

The report warns that beneficial ownership information is rarely, if ever requested, by most countries when registering vessels or requesting fishing licenses, meaning that those ultimately responsible for the abuses are not detected and punished. 

Alfonso Daniels, the lead author of the report, says: “Forced abuse in commercial fishing vessels is widespread and is often linked to other violations such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing which generates more than US$11.4 billion a year in illicit financial flows from Africa alone every year. Yet financial secrecy still surrounds the fishing sector, and there´s little political will to improve financial transparency that´s needed to target those ultimately responsible for these crimes.”

Tom Cardamone, President and CEO of Global Financial Integrity (GFI), says: “As has been seen in reports which examined ships evading Russian sanctions and vessels that have questionable compliance with international standards of operations, this study further highlights the links between illegal activity in the world’s oceans and a lack of transparency in vessel ownership.”

Rossen Karavatchev, Fisheries Coordinator of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) which supported this report, says: “Forced labour is a serious concern for fishers around the world who frequently suffer abuse and exploitation. European companies and consumers aren’t immune from this, as global seafood supply chains being long and opaque. We call on all companies to conduct proper and meaningful human rights due diligence. The EU Commission current proposal to ban products of forced labour from entering the European market also needs to be urgently approved and put into practice.”

The Financial Transparency Coalition calls for five key measures to protect fishers and enhance transparency in the sector:

  • Improve publicly available vessel information: Before awarding a fishing license or authorisation, flag and coastal States should require information on the managers, operators and beneficial owners of the vessel. In addition, unified and publicly available lists of vessels accused of forced labour and IUU fishing should be created.
  • Create publicly accessible beneficial ownership registries: Unless there are publicly available beneficial ownership information, states will only end up sanctioning or fining the vessel’s captain, crew or the vessel itself, without being able to pursue the legal and beneficial owners who are profiting from these crimes.  
  • Identify forced labour and IUU fishing as predicate offences for money laundering purposes, . Fisheries-related crimes should also be considered “predicate offences” for money laundering, i.e. an illegal activity that generates proceeds of crime that are then laundered, and therefore treated as illicit financial flows.  
  • Ratify key international conventions: States should ratify key international fisheries treaties and conventions to prevent forced labour and IUU fishing. This includes the ILO Work in Fishing Convention of 2007, whose objective is to ensure that fishers have decent conditions of work on board fishing vessels and has only been ratified by 21 countries, and the Cape Town Agreement of 2012. 
  • Expand extractive industry reporting to include fisheries: Fisheries should be included as an extractive industry in key initiatives including the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) and other global and regional initiatives concerning regulation and transparency of extractive industries. 


Notes to Editors:

The Financial Transparency Coalition (FTC) is a global civil society network operating as a collaborative coalition of 11 civil society organisations based in every region of the world. The FTC works to curtail illicit financial flows by promoting a transparent, accountable, and sustainable financial system that works for everyone.

FTC members are: Transparency International, the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development, Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, Christian Aid, European Network on Debt and Development, Fundación SES, Global Financial Integrity, Latin American Network on Debt, Development, and Rights, Pan-African Lawyers Union, Tax Justice Network and Tax Justice Network Africa.

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