UNODC to take on corruption enabling forced labour in the fishing industry

Posted on 17 July 2017


The fishing industry in Southeast Asia is continuously plagued with severe human rights abuses, and corruption appears to be one of the main causes of this problem. Investigations by the Environmental Justice Foundation and IOM reveal that corrupt officials collude with Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) syndicates to smuggle migrants across borders and enable fishing companies to exploit crewmembers on Thai fishing vessels. Undocumented migrant workers from countries like Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia become vulnerable along every stage of the smuggling process and frequently turn into victims of human trafficking before reaching seaports. Once aboard they are subjected to forced labour, physical abuse and debt bondage.  In short, the region that supplies a quarter of global seafood products is fuelled by victims of human trafficking.

Why does this happen? Overfishing in the region has pushed fisheries to take extreme measures to remain profitable.  Depleting fish stocks drive vessels farther into international waters, creating additional operating expenses that incentivize the use of cost-cutting measures like forced labour and other serious crimes in the fishery sector.  As there are no comprehensive global regulations for fishing on the high seas, many vessels use transshipments to launder illegally caught fish into the global market.

How is corruption involved? Various reports indicate that corrupt actions at multiple levels in the public sector enable these violations to continue. For instance, at the local levels, certain immigration officials (as instructed by their superiors or through bribery) have been found to allow undocumented workers to cross borders with the help of trafficking syndicates. These syndicates later paid local police to work as security guards to contain victimized crewmembers at the sea ports. Regional level officials, who have been suspected of collusion with vessel owners and TOC networks, may fail to or delay investigating reports of abuse and malpractice within fisheries. Finally, high level officials have reportedly accepted bribes from vessels to pass inspections and issue valid fishing permits in their waters. At the international level, weak institutional frameworks and lack of coordination can enable fraudulent practices in the region's waters such as flag hopping and obtaining multiple boat registries.  

The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) is the sole legally binding international treaty to address corruption. The Convention has been ratified by all countries in Southeast Asia, if correctly implemented it provides a number of tools to address corruption within the fishery sector. The UNCAC provides legal frameworks for investigating and prosecuting the corruption offenses detailed above, as well as outlining procedures for regional and international cooperation on these matters. For example, within the UNCAC are measures to criminalize both those who offer bribes and those who accept them. This is important because once such measures are implemented by a State party, it gives the authorities power to prosecute the source (the industry), as well as the recipient (public official), which discourages corrupt practices from either side of the transaction.  The UNCAC also requires countries to create laws for holding legal persons liable for corruption related offences, making them accountable for practices such as flag hopping, having multiple registries, the illegal procurement of operating permits and use of forged documents. The Convention also provides a framework for preventing corruption and enhancing transparency and ethics in public services and in the private sector. This makes it more difficult for corrupt officials to remain unpunished and for the private companies to engage in corrupt practices.

Finally, what's the takeaway? Working on the implementation and enforcement of the UNCAC, in particular through effective implementation of related legal and institutional frameworks affecting the fishing industry would be a good way to mitigate human trafficking and the exploitation of trafficked persons in the fishing industry.

In order to discuss concretely how to do this, UNODC is organising an experts' meeting gathering practitioners, representatives of national authorities, NGOs as well as relevant private companies. The meeting, that will take place on the 20 and 21 of November in Bangkok, is expected to devise a strategy and possible initiatives to address corruption in the operation of fishing companies in the region.

Back to Perspectives | Read more about our Regional Programme