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Slaves at sea

Slaves at sea
Sometimes it is difficult to believe that we are living in the 21st century and not the beginning of the 19th, when life was cheap and a good deal more brutal.

But earlier this month the UK brought into force the Modern Slavery Act, which has become necessary because of the trafficking and widespread criminality, in which real, live slavery is flourishing under our very noses, in a country which more than two centuries ago, saw slavery abolished.

It also has very real maritime relevance in that the new Act will enable the authorities to board and search vessels where there is suspicion that this outrage is being perpetrated aboard ships in UK waters. Hitherto the guilty could hide behind the ship’s flag, with too many flag states being unable or unwilling to intervene. From August 8, ships can be intercepted, evidence can be seized and suspects can be arrested and prosecuted, with penalties up to life imprisonment for those found guilty.

But is this really necessary? Surely this is a bit over the top in our technological maritime world? If anyone thinks this they should take a look at some of the evidence that has been assembled, notably in the fishing industry, where truly appalling things are going on all over the globe in the pursuit of fish; once the food of the poor but now a highly valuable commodity. And while there may be nothing new about the gruesome practices found aboard a very large number of fishing boats, the fact that many of these deep water craft now operate globally means that there is scarcely any part of the world which will not see these criminal practices close to their territorial waters. So the more countries which, like the UK, take a proactive line on substandard working conditions aboard all ships, regardless of the flag, the better.

This sort of exploitation rarely seems to hit the headlines, with just the occasional outrage gaining publicity after some wretched fishers have managed to escape their bondage and told the outside world about their quite unbelievable working conditions and human rights abuses. There might be a fishing boat wrecked and lives lost shining a spotlight on what is going on. Fishing at the best of times is the most dangerous of occupations, but it is difficult to contemplate these “normal” hazards being supplemented by beatings, brutality, starvation and murder of poor people who have been conned into accepting this degraded employment.

The recently published Fishers and Plunderers, a compendium of theft, slavery and violence at sea has taken the lid off these practices and demonstrates both its scale and widespread nature. The authors Alastair Couper, Hance Smith and Bruno Ciceri analyse the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing that has spread like a virus across the world’s oceans and clearly identify from where this criminality emerges. Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Russia and the Ukraine are all states where these vessels are owned, although they sail under many other accommodating flags, and none. The crews can be found from the unemployed and desperate in the developing world, tricked and robbed, beaten and brutalised by their officers , on their long, dreadful voyages.

Theft of fish stocks from waters of nations unable to protect them, illegal landings and the participation of organised crime are the background of this squalid sector, the wretched crews the collateral damage inflicted by people who just don’t care about human lives. The slavery, the bonded servitude, the years at sea in terrible conditions with no chance of getting ashore and little or no money at the end of it, are just part of the scandal that lies behind your breaded tuna steak.

While more people, who have the money to care, worry about whether their fish was caught “sustainably” in a “dolphin friendly” fashion, few will know about the lives led by the fishers who work in this unprincipled sector of the fishing industry. Just occasionally we get a reminder, as with the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, that there is a great deal that has not changed since the days of William Wilberforce, who could find much to occupy him today.