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[MANILA] A data-driven approach is under way to combat a twin scourge that confronts at least 20.9 million people globally — labour exploitation and human trafficking.

GAPfish, the global action programme against forced labour and trafficking of fishers at sea, is a four-year plan that hinges on prevention, protection and prosecution. It resulted from recommendations of a meeting of experts led by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that tackled labour exploitation in the fishing sector (25-26 November) in Oslo, Norway.

“Although the fisheries sector counts among the most important economic sectors providing food security and employment worldwide, studies reveal that on board fishing vessels, fishers — many of them migrant workers — are subjected to extreme forms of human rights abuses, including forced labour and human trafficking,” Brandt Wagner, head of the transport and maritime unit, sectoral policies department of the ILO, tells SciDev.Net.

Capture fisheries have one of the highest occupational fatality rates in the world. According to the ILO, fishers are forced to work for long hours at very low pay, and the work is intense, hazardous and difficult. Migrant workers are often deceived and coerced by brokers and recruitment agencies to work on board vessels under the threat of harm or debt bondage.

“Trafficking is, by its very nature, criminal and hidden, which makes it very difficult to research and estimate.”

By Rebecca Surtees of Nexus Institute

Inadequate training, poor language skills, and lack of enforcement of safety and labour standards make fishers particularly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking.

While small studies exist that try to get deeply at the gravity of exploitation or trafficking of fishers, reliable data remain wanting and most available research data are limited to specific locations, notes Rebecca Surtees of the independent anti-slavery and anti-human trafficking think-tank Nexus Institute.

“Trafficking is, by its very nature, criminal and hidden, which makes it very difficult to research and estimate…Regardless of the scale, we do know that it is happening in many countries and affecting a significant number of fishers,” she says, citing that among the proofs were the repatriation of Thai, Cambodian and Burmese fishers by Indonesia.

“Understanding the nature of this exploitation and their impacts is the key to designing programmes and policies that can both prevent trafficking of fishers and protect those who have already been exploited,” Surtees adds.

“Research and evaluation are an important part of designing and assessing the impact of any response,” she stresses, so that “necessary interventions and policies can be adopted by states involved and private commercial fishers”.

Wagner says ILO Convention 188, which imposes guidelines on flag state inspection of working and living conditions on board fishing vessels, will be pivotal in addressing these problems.

“The 2014 Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention will be another very helpful tool to address these issues,” Wagner adds, even while acknowledging that “much still more needs to be done”.

According to Wagner, so far only Argentina, Bosnia, Congo, France, Morocco, Norway and South Africa have ratified the convention. ILO 188 will enter into force 12 months after 10 countries ratify it. Eight of these countries must be coastline states.

However, Emilio Pana, a lawyer for the Philippines-based Citra Mina Workers’ Union, foresees difficulties in enforcing the provisions of ILO Convention 188.

He says that lobbying by commercial fishers for non-passage of the measure is strong.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.