Human Rights Abuses

“…Captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20 to 22 hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing…”

“Some [workers] were so depressed that they simply threw themselves into the water. [One] said his most painful task was working without proper clothing in the ship’s giant freezer, where temperatures drop to 39 degrees below zero. ‘It was so cold, our hands were burning,’ he said. ‘No one really cared if anyone died.’”

AP Investigation: Slaves May Have Caught the Fish You Bought by Robin McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza, Associated Press (2015).

“You Burmese are never going home. You were sold, and no one is ever coming to rescue you.”

“All he did was ask to go home. The last time the Burmese slave made the same request, he was beaten almost to death. But after being gone eight years and forced to work on a boat in faraway Indonesia, Myint Naing was willing to risk everything to see his mother again…So he threw himself on the ground and roped his arms around the captain’s legs to beg for freedom. The [captain] barked loud enough for all to hear that Myint would be killed for trying to abandon ship. Then he flung the fisherman onto the deck and chained down his arms and legs. Myint was left for three days to burn in the searing sun and shiver in the nighttime rain, without food or water. He wondered how he would be killed. Would they throw his body overboard to wash up on shore, like the other corpses he’d seen? Would they shoot him? Or would they simply bash his head open, as they had done before?”

Myanmar fisherman goes home after 22 years as a slave by Margie Mason, Associated Press (2015).

Human Rights Abuses

The fishing industry exploits human as well as nonhuman animals. Human rights abuses, including labor law violations, human trafficking, child labor, and even slavery, are well-documented on fishing boats, fish farms, and in slaughterhouses and processing plants.

Working in the fishing industry is very dangerous. Working conditions aboard fishing boats are some of the worst conditions in any industry in the world. Workers have to deal with poor weather (usually without protective gear), slippery and moving surfaces, excessive noise, skin and eye infections, large gear that can malfunction, sharp knives or other objects, musculoskeletal injuries, inadequate living and sleeping quarters, poor sanitation, and a lack of fresh food or water. They may not be able to obtain adequate medical care quickly for injuries or sickness. Some die from their injuries or are permanently disabled. Workers may be forced to work around the clock without breaks for days. They are abused by management, through actual or threatened physical abuse (beating or using a weapon), confinement in cages or chains, verbal abuse, and even actual or threatened execution. Workers on boats often do not have any way to communicate with the outside world, meaning they are essentially trapped in horrifying conditions with no way to ask for help.

Labor Law Violations

In the US, fish (and other animal) slaughterhouses and processing plants employ many migrant and low-income workers. In 2012, an investigation found a number of health and safety as well as minimum wage violations in a Louisiana fish processing plant. Workers in that plant also reported that management often made threats against them, including threatening to deport them and threats against their families in Mexico.

Human Trafficking & Slavery

Globally, at least 21 million people are currently victims of forced labor. The majority of forced laborers work in industries such as manufacturing, fishing, agriculture, and food processing. Forced labor is common in these industries because the workers are often from marginalized populations, including migrants. Migrant workers are vulnerable to slavery due to a lack of documentation, debt from trafficking fees (many pay brokers to traffic them over borders and help find them work), and language barriers. The global refugee crisis also results in exploitation of migrant workers. As of 2017, 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, economic hardship, climate change, or war or other violence.

Workers are often recruited, and have to pass through many agents who charge fees to transport them. The agents then sell the workers, usually for around $1,000 each, to captains of fishing boats or the companies that own them. The workers then must work off this “debt” with the low wages they are paid (if they are even paid at all). Many workers do not realize the cruel working conditions until they are on board the boat – and by then, it’s too late. Some fishing boats stay at sea for years (transporting the fish back to land through smaller ships). Workers on boats are usually required to surrender documents such as their passport, which makes it almost impossible to escape.

A 2014 report found evidence of human trafficking in the fishing industry in 31 different countries. An Associated Press investigation in Indonesia in 2015 and 2016 led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves.

Child Labor

Child labor is common in the fishing industry. Nearly 1 in 10 children under the age of 18 who work are employed by the fishing industry. Almost 10% of fishing industry workers are children (aged 5 to 17 years). Some work with their families or as a means to help support their family. There is also evidence that the fishing industry recruits children in particular.

Legal Regulation of Fishing and Farming

Each jurisdiction has its own rules and regulations regarding these operations. Laws that do exist are often not enforced. It is difficult and expensive to patrol an industry that operates on the open sea.


Slavery and Labour Abuse in the Fishing Sector, Greenpeace guidance for the seafood industry and government by Greenpeace (2014).

21 million people are now victims of forced labour, ILO says by the International Labor Organization (2012).

Caught at Sea, Forced Labor and Trafficking in Fisheries by the International Labor Organization (2013).

Overview of the Fishing and Aquaculture Sector by Verite (2016).

Seafood from Slaves by the Associated Press (2015-2016).

Seafood Slavery by American Progress.

Over 300 slaves rescued from Indonesia island after AP investigation into forced labor by Robin McDowell and Margie Mason, Associated Press (2015).

Thai fishing industry endangers child workers, says report by Gabriel Domínguez, Deutsche Welle (2015).

Combating the Worst Forms of Child Labour in Shrimp and Seafood Processing Areas in Thailand by the International Labor Organization (2016).

Was Your Seafood Caught By Slaves? AP Uncovers Unsavory Trade by NPR (2015).

Lack of Intersectionality: A Moral Inconsistency of the Animal Rights Movement? by Raffaella Ciavatta and Lilia Trenkova, Vegan Feminist Network (2015).