Fish and chips are a Friday evening dinner favourite — but it is possible the battered fish you are buying has been caught by modern-day slaves.
- About two-thirds of seafood eaten in Australia is imported
- Most of that comes from countries where there is a high risk of slavery on fishing boats
- Consumers are being urged to ask who caught their fish
Australian fishmongers and academics are hoping the introduction of Australia’s first Modern Slavery Act will help stamp out slave labour from our seafood supply chains.
Perth fishmonger Matt Beagley said he was worried we do not know enough about the fish we eat.
“Where this fish is coming from, where the fish is caught and how the people are treated? There’s nothing,” he told 7.30.
“We sit here and we worry about a shark caught on a drumline out of WA, but we don’t sit there and worry about actual human loss and the human factor in what we’re doing bringing this incredibly awful fish into Australia.
“These fishermen would be going out and getting very minimum wage … if they’re getting paid at all.
“And to be putting lives at risk due to the unethical purchasing of imported fish … it’s just disappointing.”
Mr Beagley’s concerns are backed up by research from Professor Jessica Meeuwig of the University of Western Australia.
“In Australia, about two-thirds of the seafood that we eat is imported,” she told 7.30.
“Most of it comes from countries where we know there is a high risk of slavery being used to provide that fish.
“Definitely a percentage of the fish we eat is tainted by slave labour.
“It could be the imported prawns you purchase, the imported barra, the canned tunas — these are all high risk.”
‘Trapped and tricked’
Modern slavery is an issue across industries like agriculture, construction, and manufacturing, with the International Labour Organisation estimating there are over 40 million people trapped in slave-like conditions.
But in recent years, the use of forced or unpaid labour on fishing boats has been attracting attention.
Research shows that in many parts of the world, people are being forced to work out at sea for months on end.
In 2015, hundreds of Burmese slave fishermen were rescued from boats and allowed to return to their homes after an operation in Indonesia.
“Often it’s young men who are migrant labour, or people [who] are captured onboard a vessel, who’ll have to work long hours in appalling circumstances, [and] often in dangerous situations,” Professor Paul Redmond of the University of Technology Sydney told 7.30.
“They’re trapped and in many cases tricked, and they are effectively living in slave-like conditions, which means their labour is utterly controlled by others.
“That is the economic model that sustains fishing in a declining industry.”
Last year Australia passed the Modern Slavery Act, which will require large Australian companies to publish annual information about their supply chains and what they are doing to minimise the risk of slave labour.
While it has been widely welcomed, Professor Redmond said it was a flawed model.
“The Modern Slavery Act has a number of weaknesses, primarily the absence of penalties,” he said.
“It’s become quite clear from the United Kingdom experience over the last three or four years that the absence of penalties and enforcement has let to poor-quality reporting, [with] as many as one-third of companies failing to file a report.”
In a statement, the Department of Home Affairs said “reputation risk” would drive self-enforcement of the rules, and it would review how well the system was working in three years.
Importers ‘aware’ of issue
A new report on Australia’s seafood supply chains by Professor Meeuwig said fish from nations like Thailand, Taiwan and China were eight times more likely to be caught by slaves than fish from other countries.
But there have also been cases of illegal practices in New Zealand, Hawaii and the United Kingdom.
There is no suggestion of slave labour conditions in the Australian fishing industry, leading some, such as Mr Beagley, to recommend people avoid imported fish and buy local.
That option has been rejected by the Seafood Importers Association of Australia, which said a boycott would further punish fishermen in developing countries.
“The association, which represents 14 of Australia’s largest importers, is acutely aware of the existence of slavery and other forms of extreme abuse in parts of the global seafood industry,” executive chairman Norman Grant said in a statement to 7.30.
“We have been participating in programs in partnership with governments, NGOs and responsible buyers, here and abroad, for over a decade, to reform or eradicate this abhorrent practice.”
On the anti-slavery frontline
Bangkok-based Darian McBain is an expert in ethical and sustainable supply chains, and is on the frontline of efforts to stamp out slave labour on fishing boats in South-East Asia.
She currently works for Thai Union, one of the world’s biggest producers of fish and seafood products.
The company has been investigated for engaging in illegal fishing practices in the past, but Dr McBain said a huge amount of work had been done to clean up the industry.
“Generally boycotts don’t help the people who are the end of the supply chain, because they rely on the income from the job they’re doing,” she told 7.30.
“You’re much better off engaging with companies on the ground and with the civil society that is present to really try to improve the conditions and understand what the issues are.”
Dr McBain said one of the biggest challenges was the isolation of fishing crews working far offshore.
“Unlike a farm or a factory, you can’t easily go visit or audit on a vessel when it’s at sea, so workers sometimes don’t have a voice,” she said.
“One of the things Thai Union and others in the industry are doing now is making sure we can connect with the workers.
“For example, by putting satellite phones on Thai vessels, so that for the first time workers can chat with their loved ones back on shore.”
Professor Meeuwig said there were long-term trends fuelling the use of slave labour on fishing boats, including the shrinking number of fish in the oceans.
“We are seeing labour abuse in fisheries because we have basically emptied the oceans,” she said.
“These are low-profit fisheries, and people abuse labour because it’s the only way that can make a buck.”
Technology has also made it possible for large freezer boats to travel further offshore with crews for longer periods of time, creating what she describes as “cauldrons for labour abuse”.
But there is one thing all parties agree on.
Consumers should not be afraid to ask exactly where and how their fish was caught — and, most critically, by whom.