Can Technology Partnerships Reduce Trafficking in the Seafood Industry in Southeast Asia?

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SSG Advisors, 2015

Trafficking in persons extracts an enormous human toll across SE Asia. The victims – often migrant workers from the poorer countries of the region – Lao, Burma, Cambodia –are subject to horrific abuse and often held against their will for months or years at a time. Human trafficking is particularly a problem in the seafood industry where fishing boats and trawlers on the high seas leave workers isolated and vulnerable to abuse. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people are trafficked in the seafood industry each year. Since much of the seafood in the region is exported, consumers in the EU and North America are unwittingly complicit in supporting human trafficking when they purchase many seafood and pet food products that were produced with forced labor.

Over the last several years, there has been growing pressure from the media, human and labor rights groups as well as western governments on the seafood industry to address the problem of human trafficking in its supply chain. However, addressing the problem is a huge logistical and technological challenge. On land, many leading companies have made significant progress improving working conditions in their supply chains. Companies such as Nike have taken a variety of steps – increasing audits and providing workers with greater opportunities to report abuse through hotlines and other tools.

At sea, however, these proven approaches simply do not work as auditing boats at sea is not feasible and spot inspections at ports are unlikely to catch abuses as they occur. In addition, when boats are far at sea there are no mobile networks, meaning workers have no means to report abuse via hotlines. Without easy access to the work place and communications with workers, it is very difficult for industry, labor rights groups and governments to detect and address cases of abuse.

What if there was a way to offer communications and even mobile communications to vessels at sea? Would that improve the ability of governments and industry to monitor labor abuses at sea? Would it enable workers at sea to report abuses safely and anonymously?

Until recently, it was not economically or technologically feasible to monitor labor practices of fishing vessels at sea. However, recent developments may create a strong incentive for fishing vessels to ensure a level of connectivity at sea. To comply with new US and EU new illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing regulations, the SE Asia seafood industry, together with host governments and donors are developing a new electronic catch documentation and traceability system (eCDT) in the region. eCDT will track catch across the entire supply chain from ‘bait to plate.’ A key component of the system will likely be an improved vessel monitoring system (VMS) that will automatically report data regarding catch size, time, location etc. This data must then be transmitted from the boat via satellite link, allowing governments and buyers to trace the origins of seafood products ultimately exported to the US and elsewhere.

What if, in addition to the data regarding catch if the eCDT system could also monitor data regarding labor? What if the eCDT platform could also offer some level of communications through their mobile devices? Could the increased labor data and the opportunity for improved sea worker communications be used to deter and reduce labor abuses aboard fishing vessels?

SSG Advisors, together with leading seafood companies, labor groups, conservation organizations and donors, is exploring the feasibility of expanding the role of the the new eCDT platform to include monitoring of labor conditions on fishing vessels and, possibly, providing some form of hotline communications for workers at sea in Southeast Asia. Tentatively called the Sea Fair Alliance, this exciting new public-private partnership will seek to develop and deploy a labor-inclusive eCDT system as a proof-of-concept to see if the platform can be used effectively to combat human trafficking and labor abuse aboard fishing vessels. If the deployment proves successful, the Sea Fair Alliance will work with industry and governments in the region to scale up a labor-inclusive eCDT platform across the region.

Ending the scourge of human slavery in the seafood industry in SE Asia will not be easy. However, the labor-inclusive eCDT system being developed under the Sea Fair Alliance could provide law enforcement, rights groups and industry with the data and communications they need to reduce and deter human trafficking on the high seas.

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