Home Commentary Migrant fishermen and debt bondage

Migrant fishermen and debt bondage

Despite the inhumane conditions, many migrant fishers are unable or are afraid to leave their ships due to debts

The delicious seafood in a menu might have a dark side: labor issues involving migrant fishermen that have long troubled the global fishing industry.

In the piece “Worked to Death,” journalists from the Environmental Reporting Collective worked together to expose illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing – known in the industry as “IUU fishing.”

IUU fishing is a broad term that captures a wide variety of fishing activity that has caused alarming destruction to marine environments, as well as horrific human rights abuses by the companies involved.



It includes all fishing that breaks fisheries laws and regulations, or occurs outside their reach. Illegal fishing usually refers to fishing without a license, fishing in a closed area, fishing with prohibited gear, fishing over a quota, or the fishing of prohibited species.

There are also entities that are not reporting or underreporting their catch — even if the vessel is licensed to catch a certain species.

Out on the high seas, the journalists documented a dark undercurrent of illegal and destructive activity that has been running for decades.

The piece narrated stories of Southeast Asian migrant fishermen, including Filipinos, recruited to work on board foreign fishing vessels with promises of decent, well-paid jobs.

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But once they begin working, the promised conditions of work do not materialize, and they find themselves trapped in abusive conditions.

Work may be performed under conditions that are degrading (humiliating or dirty) or hazardous (difficult or dangerous without adequate protective gear), and in severe breach of labor laws.

Many are obliged to work excessive hours or days beyond the limits prescribed by national law or contracts. Breaks and days off are denied by being on call 24/7.

They are usually physically assaulted if they refuse to obey orders: they were hit, kicked, slapped across the face, and beaten with objects like ropes and metal rods.

They were fed rotten food and given dirty drinking water. Over time, some of them developed unknown illnesses.

Fishermen prepare for another day at sea off the coast of the northern Philippines. (Photo by Jojo Rinoza)

Despite the inhumane conditions, the report noted that many migrant fishers were unable or afraid to leave their ships due to threat of debt, among other reasons.

The contract usually indicate that if they fail to complete their two-year work terms, they would forfeit much of their salary while still owing their recruiters fees.

Greenpeace said in the paper “Seabound: The Journey To Modern Slavery On The High Seas” that such a scenario, where fishing vessel captains rule with impunity, makes modern slavery at sea possible.

Under the so-called debt bondage, the migrant fishers often work in an attempt to pay off an incurred or sometimes even inherited debt. The debt can arise from wage advances or loans to cover recruitment or transport costs or from daily living or emergency expenses, such as medical costs.

Brokers charge exorbitant fees, with interest, often taking payment directly from the migrant fisher’s wages and creating the conditions for debt bondage.

Greenpeace also criticized the retention by the employer of identity documents or other valuable personal possessions, and the inability of the migrant fishermen to access these items on demand.

Wages are also systematically and deliberately withheld as a means to compel the migrant fisher to remain, and deny him the opportunity to change employer.

In October 2019, I was in Taiwan where I was able to meet some of the Filipino survivors of the collapse of a bridge in Nanfang’ao Port. Three Filipino fishermen were killed in the incident that also left 18 migrant fishermen, including 14 Filipinos, homeless.

Chinese fishermen head to the shoal to fish at the disputed Scarborough Shoal April 6, 2017. (Reuters photo)

The 2018 US State Department’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices flagged countries like Taiwan for the practices of recruitment and brokerage agencies, which facilitate the hiring of fishermen and other migrant workers, leaving workers “vulnerable to debt bondage.”

This occurs when recruitment agency hires a foreign fishing worker and withholds his passport or deducts heavy service fees from his pay.

The Report noted that mistreatment and poor working conditions for foreign fishermen remain common.

Foreign fishermen recruited offshore are not entitled to the same labor rights, wages, insurance, and pensions as those recruited locally.

Have you ever wondered if some of the sea products you purchased are the result of an injustice called debt bondage?

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices in Manila. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786

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