China Tops the List of Labor Exploiters in Global Fishing Industry, Often Resembling Slavery

by Lucas Garcia
Forced Labor Fishing Industry

An alarming number of industrial fishing vessels worldwide, nearing 500, exhibit hazardous and often forced labor conditions, bordering on slavery. Pinpointing those culpable for these maritime abuses is complicated by opaque practices and insufficient regulatory frameworks, according to a recent study.

The investigation, undertaken by the Financial Transparency Coalition based in Washington, D.C., marks a significant effort to pinpoint the corporations running these ships, where annually, tens of thousands of workers are believed to be caught in perilous conditions.

Revealed in a report released on Wednesday, around 25% of the ships suspected of labor abuses fly the Chinese flag. China’s distant water fleet is a major player in high seas fishing, an area often beyond the reach of any single nation’s laws. Additionally, vessels from Russia, Spain, Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea are implicated in the mistreatment of fishermen.

This coverage is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, with the AP exclusively responsible for content production.

The seafood sector’s forced labor is a widespread but hidden issue, increasingly identified as a significant human rights crisis. The Big Big News in 2015 brought to light the severe mistreatment of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos on Thai fishing boats, with their catch frequently ending in U.S. markets.

As per the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, up to 128,000 fishers globally face violence, debt bondage, excessive work hours, and other forced labor indicators.

With rampant worker abuse in labor-intensive industries, U.S. and European firms face mounting pressure to reform their supply chains. The Group of Seven’s Financial Action Task Force has recognized illegal logging and mining as major money laundering sources and urged its members to create public databases to expose the financial flows underpinning environmental crimes.

Despite these developments, the seafood industry remains underexamined, partly due to the challenges governments face in regulating activities far offshore. Recently, President Joe Biden’s administration opted against expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which aims to curb illegal fishing and forced labor on foreign vessels—contributors to about 80% of U.S. seafood consumption.

Beth Lowell, U.S. vice president of Oceana, commented on the report, “The grim reality of some commercial fishing vessels’ operations is once again in the spotlight and utterly unacceptable. Seafood should not come at the cost of human rights abuses.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on Tuesday, announced the halt of the expansion plan for the import monitoring program, after considering public input on proposed regulatory changes. It will instead enhance the current program’s effectiveness, covering approximately 1,100 species.

Another hurdle to transparency is the licensing of vessels by countries like Panama and Belize, known for financial secrecy and lax fleet oversight. The Financial Transparency Coalition found that 18% of the suspect vessels utilized so-called convenience flags to dodge scrutiny and obscure their shareholder structure.

The report names two Chinese firms, ZheJiang Hairong Ocean Fisheries Co. and Pingtan Marine Enterprises, as primary violators, with 10 and seven ships respectively accused of human rights breaches. A third, the state-owned China National Fisheries Corp., had five implicated vessels.

These companies did not respond to AP’s inquiries for comments. However, ZheJiang Hairong previously stated to Fujian Daily, a state publication, that it owned only five of the 10 vessels later listed by the Financial Transparency Coalition. Pingtan faced sanctions from the Biden administration for alleged illegal fishing and labor abuses and was consequently delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.

The coalition’s extensive research, encompassing government reports, media stories, and advocacy group complaints, identified 475 vessels suspected of forced labor since 2010. However, flag details were obtainable for only about half, underscoring the need for improved ownership transparency.

AP Reporter Fu Ting in Washington, D.C., and researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.


For more information, contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected] or visit https://www.ap.org/tips/.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Forced Labor Fishing Industry

What are the key findings of the report on forced labor in the fishing industry?

The report reveals that nearly 500 industrial fishing vessels globally are involved in hazardous and forced labor conditions, akin to slavery. China is identified as a major culprit, with a quarter of the vessels flagged to the country. Other countries like Russia, Spain, Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea are also implicated.

Which organization conducted the research on labor abuses in the fishing industry?

The Financial Transparency Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, conducted this comprehensive research. They focus on tracking illicit money flows and have made significant efforts to identify the companies operating these vessels.

What does the report say about the extent of forced labor in the global seafood industry?

The report indicates that forced labor in the seafood industry is a widespread but often unseen human rights crisis. It estimates that as many as 128,000 fishers globally face violence, debt bondage, excessive work hours, and other conditions indicative of forced labor.

How have U.S. and European companies responded to labor abuses in their supply chains?

U.S. and European companies are under increasing pressure to reform their supply chains in labor-intensive industries like seafood, where worker abuse is widespread. This includes efforts to address and prevent illegal logging and mining, recognized as key drivers of money laundering.

What action did the Biden administration recently take regarding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program?

The Biden administration decided against expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which is designed to prevent illegal fishing and forced labor on foreign vessels. Instead, the administration will focus on improving the impact of the current program, which covers around 1,100 species.

Which countries are known for licensing vessels involved in labor abuses?

Countries like Panama and Belize, known for financial secrecy and minimal oversight of their fleets, frequently license vessels implicated in labor abuses. These countries provide so-called flags of convenience that allow companies to avoid scrutiny and hide their ownership structure.

More about Forced Labor Fishing Industry

  • Financial Transparency Coalition
  • United Nations International Labor Organization
  • Seafood Import Monitoring Program
  • Group of Seven Financial Action Task Force
  • Oceana Conservation Group
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Biden Administration Policies on Seafood Import
  • Forced Labor in the Seafood Industry Reports
  • Human Rights Abuses in Fishing Industry
  • Global Seafood Supply Chain Regulations

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EcoWarrior November 15, 2023 - 6:16 pm

its about time someone shed light on this! the oceans and its workers deserve better than this.

MarySue1975 November 15, 2023 - 6:55 pm

This is just heartbreaking. Those poor workers, trapped at sea with no way out. And we just eat the fish without thinking…

FinanceGuru November 16, 2023 - 12:29 am

Interesting report, but how accurate is it? These things are often more complicated than they appear…

John Fisher November 16, 2023 - 10:31 am

wow this is shocking, didn’t know China had such a big role in this, guess we really need to look more into where our seafood comes from…


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