Dark Webs: Uncovering those behind forced labour on commerical fishing fleets

November 15th, 2023

A new report by the Financial Transparency Coalition and members finds that 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, although the majority of companies are from Asia, especially Chinese.

The report entitled “Dark webs: uncovering those behind forced labour on fishing fleets”, the 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.

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.

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