The HRAS Interview with Abby McGill: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand


HRAS Interview: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand

It is promising that the Thai government and big industry players like Costco are getting involved in the fight against human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry, but there is more work to be done. For Abby McGill, that work focus is on empowering Thailand’s migrant workers.

McGill is responsible for coordinating campaigns around labor exploitation in globally-traded agricultural commodities at the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). Her work includes seafood from Thailand, cotton from Uzbekistan, palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia, Cocoa from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and tobacco from Malawi.


What is ILRF’s approach to dealing with labor exploitation?

We have a three tiered philosophy here at ILRF. First is worker empowerment. I partner with organizations on the ground to improve conditions by ensuring that the workers themselves have voice and that there’s democratic workplace principals being instilled in places that ultimately provide goods for Western markets.

The second is government change. We work to ensure that governments in countries that produce goods for global markets have good labor laws and that those laws are enforced. Additionally, we work to ensure that laws in countries like that U.S., or Australia or the E.U., where these goods are ultimately found, also promote good global trade that focuses on rights promotion rather than an extraction model of global commerce.

The last big part of change is industry. Here we try to hold companies accountable for what happens all along their supply chain, not only in the facilities over which they have direct control, and to promote greater transparency and accountability within long, complex global supply chains.


When you talk about the supply chain of companies are you meaning any size company or big multinationals?

We tend to focus on big multinationals, mostly because that’s an area where you can get a lot of change. What we see now in global markets is that the old relationship of somebody produces a good and goes to market to see how much they can get for it has been flipped on its head. The big multinational companies, the Walmarts and Tescos of the world, have cornered the market on retail sales to the extent that they are effectively setting prices for producers. The big purchasers of seafood, for example, at the big seafood expos in Boston, Hong Kong, Brussels dictate prices on the trading floor saying that you have to meet certain price points otherwise we won’t purchase it.

We advocate for a different approach where retailers and the big multinationals make long term strategic partnerships with their suppliers so that the supplier knows that three or four years down the line they’re still going to have demands for this product, that they can create some security for their workers, and that they’re able to convey to their customers, the big multinational brands, what it actually costs to produce this good in a way that has safe and decent working conditions for the workers who produce it.


Why do migrant workers need more empowerment?

There’s three to four million migrant workers in Thailand. Many of them are undocumented. Fewer now that Thailand has made pretty impressive strides in registering migrant workers. However, that registration process itself is quite expensive. Whether you go through the formal channels or informal recruitment channels, workers often have to take on a lot of debt.

Under Thai law migrant workers are bound to their employers. It’s very difficult to leave an employer, even if there’s abuse there, and still remain in the country legally. The incentive is really for workers to keep quiet if there are problems because they arrive in debt, they need to pay it off and they can’t leave their employer and continue to work in the country.


What is ILRF doing in Thailand?

We try to highlight problems like that and try to organize coalitions of organizations to demand for solutions. We partner with an organization on the ground called the Migrant Workers Rights Network which is an organization of migrant workers in Thailand trying to improve conditions.

We have brought together a group of organizations under the name Thai Seafood Working Group. When I started that project in early 2014, it was about a dozen organizations mostly based in the U.S. that we had assembled through other work we’d done, mostly on the child labor coalition in the cotton groups that were interested in human rights.

Now the working group is more than 50 organizations from about a dozen countries that aren’t just human rights organizations. There’s a lot of environmental groups that participate and a lot of seafood groups.

A big focus for us is the lack of freedom of association for migrant workers. Right now they’re forbidden from serving in the leadership of or forming trade unions. They can join already existing unions, but there are so few of those because Thai’s don’t work in the seafood industry. So, in essence, migrant workers are completely unrepresented. It keeps them isolated, it keeps them vulnerable, and it keeps them exploitable.

We fight hard to try and ensure that migrant workers have access to all of the fundamental rights at work in their workplace, including freedom of association.


Do the Walmarts of the world feature in improving practices in the industry?

Walmart has a few different initiatives going on in the Thai seafood sector. When big companies get involved their interventions often involve a lot of certification and auditing, but those aren’t solutions that actually empower the workers themselves. It’s somebody coming from outside to look at what’s happening in the supply chain, not developing the power from within for workers to hold their employers accountable.

There are a lot of industry solutions that are having various impacts. Some good and some not so good but the ultimate judge by what we would measure an effective intervention is does it help the workers themselves to be able to address problems in their workplaces without a third party having to be there.

One of the models that we’re trying to promote not only in seafood but in all commodities is retailers and multinational corporations should have to publish where they get the goods that are produced. They should list names of suppliers. The garment sector has had the biggest success with this. That would be the kind of traceability that I would hope for.


Is it just the shrimp industry that has problems or are there other Thai seafood industries that are of concern?

Thailand is one of the major processors of canned tuna in the world. The Thai fleet itself doesn’t actually catch much tuna. Rather, Thailand is one of the biggest importers of tuna, from countries such as Taiwan or South Korea, and then they export it. So, Thailand becomes a choke point for abuses on the tuna fleets of a lot of different countries.

We encourage the major tuna companies, like Tuna Union, to name their suppliers and to push down to their suppliers the importance of having complete catch certification from the vessel and the processing level so that consumers can know where the tuna in their can ultimately came from.

Another industry is pet food. Thailand’s a huge exporter of pet food to the U.S., Europe and Australia. Pet food is a hundred billion dollar industry across these countries, and a lot of different kinds of proteins go into it. Trash fish definitely goes into it. Other kinds of fish that are caught by Thai vessels go into it. Poultry also goes into it, and there’s horrendous cases of human trafficking coming out of Thailand’s poultry sector.


What is the Thai government achieving?

The Thai government is certainly interested in showing that it has made demonstrable progress on the issues. They have really clamped down a lot on fisheries oversight. Our assessment of those efforts is that they have focused primarily on illegal fishing and much less on the people that are on the boats.

They’ve also made some positive changes to seafood workers. For example there is a temporary provision that migrant workers in the seafood sector can change employers. They have a lot more freedom of movement in that sector which is something that we would hope that they would expand to migrant workers in all sectors.

Where we haven’t seen a lot of progress is on overall labor rights. They haven’t made significant steps towards ensuring that migrant workers are able to form their own labor unions, that they have access to remedy when employers abuse them.

One really disturbing step backwards that we are concerned about is the use of criminal defamation. Not only has Thailand made it hard for migrant workers to report when they have been abused, but they’ve made it more likely that migrant workers will be taken to court for speaking out. They can be charged with criminal defamation if they complain about an employer.

Thai law allows it and Thai prosecutors have taken it forward. The Thai government will say that it’s the Thai judicial system and we don’t want to interfere. We certainly respect that, but the fact that they allow criminal defamation to remain on the books when it’s almost exclusively used against these human rights offenders and human rights cases is unacceptable. They need to repeal criminal defamation immediately.


Have you been to Thailand and spoken with the foreign workers?

I’ve been to Thailand on a number of occasions, and I have spoken with workers every time. These workers are really far from home, they often don’t speak Thai very well, so they don’t have a lot of resources to be able to navigate Thai legal systems. They’re working in a 3D job: a dangerous, dirty and demeaning job. Most of them don’t have a lot of education, so there’s a lot of barriers to them organizing unions. The way that Thai law stacks the books against them in favor of the employers just makes it that much harder.

I am constantly in awe of our partners on the ground who stand up, and who speak out, and who are fighting for improved conditions. I think that what they have going for them is that they’re a pretty tight knit community. They tend to live all together, they look out for each other, and their immediate instinct when things are wrong is to come together and try to make things right.

However, I think that is incumbent on those in the international community who are consuming the goods that these workers produce to do everything within our power to ensure that we are supporting those efforts.


Do the men out on the fishing boats have that sense of community?

They are much more isolated, so that is harder for them. That’s why we see some of the really most egregious problems happening particularly on long haul vessels. At least for short haul vessels, those that only go out for maybe a day or a few fays at most, they largely live in the fishing communities that surround their ports. There is some sort of camaraderie there. The long haul vessels really, really are problematic.

We have a project that’s funded by USAID to try and break a little bit of that isolation. There has been a push to get satellite technology on board vessels to better document catches. A lot of that involves satellite monitoring of vessels through VMS, AIS, and other kinds of vessel monitoring systems.

We’re trying to ensure that those systems aren’t used just to monitor the fish. We’d like to see them used to get greater insight into what’s happening with the workers on those vessels and to document working conditions. We need to make sure that as the illegal fishing piece of it moves forward the human rights piece of it isn’t out of the equation, that the two are developing side by side.


What’s on your agenda for this year?

We are focusing on elimination of criminal defamation and promoting greater freedom of association rights for migrant workers.

Industry wide I think there’s some kind of interesting things going on. Greenpeace released a report at the very end of last year on the Thai fishing fleet that has prompted Nestle, a big global brand, to try and ban the practice of transshipment, a practice that, from our perspective, can lead to workers being trapped out at sea for very long periods of time.

For a long time industry has pushed back to say that transhipment is simply a part of doing business in the seafood sector given the current stocks of fish, but if Nestle can say that it’s going to ban transhipment it seems that other companies should be able to do it too. I think we’re going to be pushing really hard on this to ensure greater catch accountability and transparency.

Also, the Thai government is working with the International Labor Organization and with other actors to try to improve their labor oversight within the fishing sector. We’re going to continue to push to ensure that the work includes migrant worker empowerment.


Thank-you Abby.

The HRAS Interview with Dr Pengfei Zhang – Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

In recent years, China has emerged as a world leader in shipbuilding, shipowning and seafarer-supply. Why is it then that Chinese seafarers remain an invisible group as far as many of the nation’s legal protections are concerned?

pengfei-photoDr Pengfei Zhang, academic, lawyer and former master mariner completed his PhD thesis on the barriers Chinese seafarers face in achieving the same level of remuneration and rights as inscribed in some international standards. His subsequent book Seafarers’ Rights in China: Restructuring in Legislation and Practice under the MLC 2006 was published by Springer last year.

HRAS spoke to Pengfei about how the latest development of seafarers’ rights in China under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC).

How did you first get started in seafarer rights?

As a seafarer working on board international merchant ships for more than eight years, I had myself experienced unfair treatment quite often. This included low wages, long working hours, poor working and living conditions and exploitation by manning agencies.

In 2009, I started to teach maritime courses in Shanghai Maritime University. Before that, I worked as a maritime lawyer and helped many Chinese seafarers involved in maritime labour disputes. This helped me to better understand the problems and challenges of seafarers. In 2012, when my career in China was growing well, I made a decision to do my PhD in London and started my academic research on seafarers’ rights.

There were several reasons for that. The most important one was that I had seen the big picture, not just for China, but for the whole world. Shipping is very important, and seafarers are very important, but research on seafarers is relatively sparse, in particular in China. I have the right background, and I am the right person to do this, and I believe the most valuable and meaningful thing for me is to do research on this topic. I am sure that I can make unique contribution.


book-front-pageWhat was the aim of your research?

The overall objective of the research was to critically investigate the conditions of seafarers’ rights in China in legislation and practice; in particular, the restructuring process under the impact of the MLC. Since its entry into force in August 2013, significant changes have taken place in the international maritime industry, less so in China. The MLC entered into force in China in November 2016 after being ratified in 2015.

Although seafarer protection in China has improved significantly in the lead-up to this, there are still many serious problems. Seafarers are working at sea, out of the sight of most people on land. As a result, although Chinese seafarers have played an increasingly important role in the international maritime industry, they tend to be an invisible group compared with most workers on land.


What improvements have been made?

The major improvements resulting from the adoption of the MLC relate to seafarers’ pre-employment registration, physical examinations, training and recruitment services. The major reason for this appears to be that the Chinese maritime community has attached great importance to seafarers’ training, qualification and competency. These aspects are closely associated with the export of seafarers, the development of the Chinese maritime industry and increased tax revenue.


Employment contracts continue to be a problem. Why?

In practice, a number of problems exist that prevent Chinese seafarers from accessing their legal employment entitlements. First of all, many Chinese seafarers have trouble accessing employment opportunities, in particular those with lower ranks, such as ratings and junior officers.

According to the MLC, there should be a public recruitment system available for seafarers to ensure that they have access to an efficient and well-regulated recruitment service. China’s Employment Promotion Law also states that local governments shall establish public employment service institutions that provide labourers with free recruitment services.

But, despite the rapid growth in the economy, China has not yet established an effective public employment system, and in the maritime labour market, many recruitment and placement businesses are controlled by private manning agencies or ship management companies. Many Chinese seafarers have to pay large sums of money for employment opportunities, and they become targets for exploitation.


How are they exploited?

As in many other maritime nations, the nature of seafarers’ work may easily subject them to exploitation by unscrupulous shipowners, operators and manning agencies. For example, many seafarers do not have an employment contract. It is even the case that some ships maintain two separate sets of seafarer employment contracts, one real and one false, with the false one just for port state control (PSC) inspections.

Fieldwork I conducted revealed that even some major state-owned Chinese shipping companies were practising this double book-keeping aimed at evading PSC inspection.

Secondly, compared with seafarers in many countries, the wages of Chinese seafarers are still very low. Delayed or unpaid wages and substandard working and living conditions are still very common, in particular when the shipping market is poor.

As there is no relevant regulation of seafarers’ annual leave in China, many Chinese seafarers tend to have a longer annual contract and cannot be repatriated in a timely manner even when they have completed their agreed terms. Furthermore, when labour disputes arise, on many occasions seafarers cannot access effective and efficient legal assistance and remedies.

These may be common problems experienced by seafarers worldwide, but they have a bigger impact on Chinese seafarers.


What special issues do Chinese seafarers face?

Unlike shipping businesses which make a direct profit for society, seafarers appear to be less important than the ships on which they serve. China, despite its impressive economic performance in the last several decades, remains a developing country with relatively limited resources allocated for public service. While the Chinese government places overriding emphasis on economic development, the importance of seafarers has been placed second to fleet construction, which seems to attract greater attention.

Chinese seafarers have special profile, and they are also facing some unique problems and challenges, such as the Chinese maritime industry, Chinese maritime labour market, Chinese seafarers’ special role as temporary migrant workers, in their families and society, their difficulty in rejoining family life and society and their social status changes across time.

Furthermore, China has a very large population that includes workers from various trades and industries. Compared with builders, platelayers and miners, seafarers are only a small group, the total number of which is not sufficient to draw special attention.


Do labour unions have any impact on Chinese seafarers’ working conditions?

The CSCU is the national industrial union of Chinese seafarers and construction workers that is affiliated to the ACFTU. At an operational level, it has developed a clear strategy to support seafarers, in particular those employed in the foreign sector. In the past, the CSCU has made great effort in protecting and promoting seafarers rights and benefits, for example, in the adoption process of Seafarers’ Regulation, as explained in the Book.

However, the protection provided by the CSCU is far from satisfactory and cannot meet the expectation of Chinese seafarers. On many occasions, it appears to be quite weak and passive and has very limited influence at the international stage. Therefore, it is not able to provide effective and efficient assistance and protection for Chinese seafarers when they encounter difficulties at foreign ports.

In addition, with an increasing number of Chinese seafarers employed by foreign shipowners, the seafarers need the union to fight for their interests and benefits. However, dealing with international affairs requires special skills (including language skills) and many other competencies, which are lacking among many union officers.

There is a serious lack of seafarers’ participation in the process of “collective consultation”. The obviously unequal bargaining power between individual seafarers and maritime employers makes it indisputable that collective bargaining is an essential element of seafarers’ rights. However, although a collective contract has been drafted and proposed by trade union, it is actually absent in practice.


What changes would you like to see enacted to improve conditions for Chinese seafarers?

The major challenges to future improvement come from government authorities, the practices of the maritime industry as well as from Chinese seafarers themselves.

Since the adoption of MLC, China’s government has put considerable effort into complying with the Convention, and many changes have taken place. However, there are still significant gaps between Chinese seafarers’ existing rights and desired rights particularly regard to wages, working and living conditions, collective bargaining agreements and seafarers’ social security.

Adoption of the China’s Seafarers Act is of key importance to improve Chinese seafarers’ rights, as well as to the full implementation of the MLC. The Act has been discussed and debated for two decades, but not much progress has been made so far. The government is therefore advised to take more concrete and efficient measures to speed up the legislation process.

Furthermore, the government departments specialising in maritime affairs need to take on more responsibility with regard to seafarers’ rights, in particular flag state inspections.

A more independent, pragmatic and effective seafarers’ union should be established specially for Chinese seafarers.

It is crucial to promote best practice in the maritime industry by implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) and maintaining a sustainable maritime labour force. The implementation of CSR can attract high-quality talent, enhance a company’s image and eventually improve its marketing performance.

A skilled, loyal and well-motivated seafarer can reduce operating costs by increasing efficiency and safety and by protecting the employer’s investment in vessels and equipment. In contrast, stress, fatigue and complaints can lead to reduced performance. This is usually the reason why incidents that cause environmental damage, loss of life and loss of property occur.

It is therefore becoming more commonly accepted that voluntary CSR should be embedded into maritime business. Respecting seafarers’ rights has become a strategy with the reward of more profit than is produced by ignoring such responsibilities


Can Chinese seafarers take action to defend and expand their rights?

According to Chinese law Chinese workers do have rights to defend and expand their rights. However, due to the special characteristics of seafaring labour, the same as in any other countries, seafarers in China may find it is difficult to realize their rights on many occasions. For example, seafarers in China are entitled to participate in the process of Chinese labour law-making. However, in practice, it is very difficult for them to deliver their views and be involved in decision-making. This is especially because of the lack of a strong and effective seafarers’ trade union in China.

The issue is particularly important to seafarers, because their unique employment conditions are not familiar to most law-makers. Compared with the employment conditions of construction workers and miners, which have been addressed to some extent in several major labour laws, seafarers’ in-employment conditions have never attracted much concern in Chinese labour law-making.

Chinese seafarers should be more pro-active, to the extent that this is possible in domestic Chinese affairs, and participate more effectively and effectively in the legislative process in China. Under the impact of the MLC, China has started to promote tripartite negotiation platforms, and seafarers are encouraged to take part in policy-making and collective bargaining activities. There are many opportunities for Chinese seafarers to become involved and to deliver their message more clearly and loudly.


What reaction has there been to the book?

The book has provoked significant reaction in many sectors, including academic institutions, shipowners, ship management sectors, manning agencies and in particular seafarers. After publishing, I posted information about the book through Chinese social media and the blog has been forwarded more than 10,000 times. I have received letters and messages asking about the book, and some Chinese seafarers continue to share with me about their experiences.


What are you working on next?

I am doing a research for the Seafarers’ Trust on seafarers’ port welfare in China; not just Chinese seafarers but seafarers of any nationality who visit China’ ports. Meanwhile, we are editing another book: The Chinese Seafarers: understanding the largest maritime workforce in the world which will be published by Springer in the second half of 2017.


Thank-you Pengfei. HRAS looks forward to hearing about your progress in the future.

The HRAS Interview: Denise Krepp U.S. ship recycling lobbyist

denise-kreppHRAS Interview Denise Krepp

Ship Recycling: If the E.U. can do it, why not the U.S.?

U.S. ship recycling lobbyist, Denise Krepp, says the U.S. is keeping a close eye on the progressive steps that the European Union is taking on ship recycling. The attitude of many in the industry is, if the E.U. can do it, why can’t the U.S.?

Krepp, a former U.S. Coast Guard lawyer, is the registered U.S. lobbyist for EMR USA, a U.S. ship recycling company that has facilities in Louisiana and Texas. She spoke to HRAS about legislative developments underway in the U.S.


Why is the U.S. taking an interest in the E.U.’s attempt to ensure that shipowners use ship recycling yards that meet specific standards for worker and environmental protection?

U.S. ship recyclers are encouraging the U.S. government to support the E.U. proposal to charge a fee for all vessels coming into E.U. ports that will be paid back to shipowners if they recycle their vessels in an E.U.-certified facility.

We understand that the E.U. is trying to level the playing field, and if the E.U. does impose a fee on vessels coming into its ports, it will have a ripple effect globally. It will force others to change, which is a positive thing.

The Hong Kong Convention is not really going anywhere, and, in any case, it doesn’t prevent beaching. From the U.S. ship recycling perspective, our companies have invested a lot of money in their facilities because they want to protect the environment and they want to protect workers. If they’re at a gold standard, which they believe they are, why should others be viewed at the same level when they haven’t sunk the same costs in?


U.S. ship recyclers have applied to be certified by the European Union. Is their focus on the E.U. a case of self-interest?

That is part of it. If a U.S. government vessel is to be recycled, then yes, they believe it should be recycled by U.S. workers. A second part, though, is the reason I’ve been advocating in Washington, and that is to remind people that in addition to looking at their carbon footprint, their emissions and their ballast water, they must also remember what happens to their ships at the end of the day.

U.S. workers are heavily regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. We have safety training. We have safety equipment. We have regulations to make sure that the environment is protected.

We want our vessels to be dismantled in facilities where workers are protected. Facilities in the U.S. have sunk the necessary costs into their business, because they believe it’s important.

When you look to see what’s going on in other places, there’s a stark difference, and we need to recognize that everybody has a role to play in the future of the industry. When I noticed recently that a Norwegian hedge fund was assessing ship recycling standards before making investments, I realized just how closely the non-maritime world is looking at this situation and saying, “We should all be concerned about this.”


What is currently happening to U.S. government vessels that are recycled?

Ship recycling in the U.S. is a mess. The Federal Property and Administrative Service Act of 1949 states that the Maritime Administration (MARAD) should serve as the government’s disposal agent for obsolete government vessels that are over 1,500 gross tons. Sadly, the General Services Administration (GSA) ignores the act and instead auctions off vessels haphazardly.

As a result the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the state maritime schools and the thousands of maritime historical organizations throughout the country suffer because, when MARAD disposes of vessels, these entities receive a portion of the proceeds. When GSA usurps the process, none of these educational entities receives the funding for which they are eligible under federal law.


The Ships to Be Recycled in the States (STORIS) Act was introduced in the 2015-2016 cycle of Congress. What does it call for?

The STORIS Act gets its name from the former Coast Guard Cutter Storis, which was dismantled in Mexico in 2013 through a GSA contract, in violation of the current law.

People are frustrated by that. They’re very frustrated by that, so Congress wanted to remind the U.S. government that its vessels should stay in the United States. They wanted to make sure that MARAD, which by law already has the authority to be the disposal agent, is actually the disposal agent, and that other agencies recognize that.

The STORIS Act strengthens oversight of MARAD’s domestic ship recycling program and promotes transparency by requiring reports from the agency and an audit by the Government Accountability Office. MARAD receives millions of dollars in federal funding but currently does not disclose how the money is spent or how the agency awards contracts.

The other interesting part of this legislation is that the government is supposed to come up with a list of vessels that are going to be declaring obsolete. That is expected to include everything from MARAD vessels to vessels owned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Many government agencies own vessels, and Congress wants to make sure all of these vessels are recycled in the United States. It has directed MARAD to come up with a list, working with all the government agencies, of all the vessels, and then come up with a plan for how all these vessels are going to be disposed of.


Is there any doubt that the Act will be passed?

The National Defense Authorization Act has been passed by Congress every year for over 50 years now, every year. Chairman Thornberry, who’s Chair of House Armed Services, and Chairman McKeon from the Senate have both been very forthright in saying they’re not going to be the ones that don’t pass this legislation. They want the trend to continue.


Parts of the STORIS Act were included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017. The full bill will be voted on in both the House and the Senate and then passed up to the new President for final authorization. What then?

We were focusing on government vessels this Congress, and then commercial vessels will be the focus for next Congress. The push will be to ensure that any vessel that is financed, subsidized, or chartered by the U.S. government is recycled in the United States.

When I’m talking about chartering, I’m talking about the Department of Defense charters of foreign-build vessels. They reflag them into the U.S. fleet, and then they charter them. In a couple of instances, they have specifically named these vessels after U.S. Medal of Honor recipients, and then they’ve turned around and let them be dismantled in foreign facilities. It’s the position of the U.S. recyclers that if you’re going to name a vessel after a man who has died in service of his country, then the vessel should be recycled by U.S. workers who have made the investment and are keeping the environment clean, not in a foreign facility that’s not operating at the same level.

At present, there are only 83 blue water vessels left sailing under the U.S. flag, of which 60 participate in the Maritime Security Program. Each one of these 60 vessels receives $3.1 million per year to participate, so the argument is that if the U.S. government is giving a vessel owner $3.1 million per year for up to 25 years, then those vessels should be recycled in the U.S.


Does the legislation cover human rights issues?

No, not yet. Not yet, but next Congress we’re going to be talking about it. We’d like to talk about some of the corporate social responsibility issues that have been raised in the E.U.

It’s companies’ corporate social responsibility to make sure that their vessels are dismantled with proper respect for human rights at an environmentally friendly facility. We’ll be saying to Congress and to others, “Well, if the E.U., why can’t the U.S.?”


Can you tell us about EMR’s Brownsville yard located in the poorest county of the U.S.?

Firstly, it’s clean. It’s laid out with concrete; there is no beaching, and the company prides itself on providing a livable wage for its workers. It also makes sure that its workers have what they need to be productive and comfortable. Brownsville, Texas, is really hot, and as one example of the company’s efforts to care for its workers, it has developed an air conditioned suit that workers wear when they are out in the heat of the day.

The company is also very respectful about preserving the history of the naval vessels that it recycles. Parts from some of the ships they are being recycling at present are going to be donated to museums.

Additionally, in the United States, we have a Library of Congress Veterans Oral History Program so that veterans can share their memories about these ships.

When EMR was awarded the contract for recycling the Independence, an aircraft carrier that participated in the Vietnam War, we received an email from a woman who said that three generations of her family had served on the vessel. EMR has planned a ceremony prior to the vessel’s dismantlement that will allow veterans one last look at the ship they served on for so many years.

Thank-you Denise.








The HRAS Interview: Dr. Lynn Simpson – Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts – Part 3/3

Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts [Part 3/3]


Veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson is a veteran of Australia’s live export trade and a veteran of Red Sea and Persian Gulf voyages delivering sheep and cattle to the Middle East. She speaks to HRAS about her experiences sailing with a mix of cultures on board through regions where their countrymen were at war.

What cultural issues were there with a mix of nationalities on board the livestock carriers you worked on?

It used to be quite tricky sometimes if you had a Muslim crew and we would trade with a country like Israel. There would be Palestinians on board who obviously had a deep-seated problem with stepping on what is considered Israeli soil. I had Palestinian officers who were lovely, they were really rational, they would speak to the Israelis who’d come on board for work, and they would be very professional. But you wouldn’t get them to step off the gangway; no way.

We might be on a voyage where we go to Saudi on the way up the Red Sea and then we go into Israel. So you go from the extreme of Saudi’s Muslim culture to Israel. I was a spectator, but I’d try to calm them down, because they get fired up. Saudi is interesting because it doesn’t seem to have offered much support to the Palestinians, in the Palestinian’s view. They were often angry in Saudi about that, and then we’d get to Israel and they’d be angry about Israel. Once you get them out to sea again, everything was fine.

We’d even been boarded by the Israeli defence force a couple of times. The captain had to stay on the bridge. The chief officer had to stay in the engine control room, an armed guard on each of them, and the rest of us, about 80, were bunched up in the forecastle; three guys with I think M16s pointed at us in the 43 degree heat.

They held us there for a couple of hours, and they taunted us. “Sit down!  Stand up!  Sit down!  Stand up!  Sit down!  Stand up!” You’re sitting on a scalding hot steel deck. They eventually took us single file into the accommodation and sat us all down on the floor in a room, taking us out one by one to interrogate us – just intimidatory tactics. It not a normal occurrence but, it’s happened more than once. It’s a complete nuisance and welfare risk when you have tens of thousands of animals to care for.


Did you have other encounters with the military?

We were going through the straits of Hormuz one day in 2003, during the second Gulf war, and we had lots of military aircraft and warships around. One time I had a chopper hovering at the side of the ship, watching me kill sheep, only metres away. I still remember the stunned expressions on the pilots’ faces. I don’t know how many they’d watch me kill. I think I had about 20 that I had to dispose of because they were considered diseased with “scabby mouth” and we needed to get rid of them before our first port.

I looked up and saw them, but I couldn’t see any insignias on the chopper, so I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t care. I could see the guns pointing at me, and I just disappeared into the ship.

Working in a war zone is always a depressing and potentially dangerous thing. As a seafarer, you don’t always know where you’re ship’s going to go, you sign up to the ship, you sign up to go wherever it goes.


Sometimes, cultural differences led to victimization on board. What was your experience of this?

Actually, I didn’t realise how quickly my veterinary skills would get sidelined a little bit. I needed to know more about culture, religion and politics to be able to get my job done properly through the day. So, for example, I had to learn all about the Indians essentially giving Bangladesh independence, but from a Bangladeshi point of view, they just gave them swamplands.

Then there’s the cast system, and the Bangladeshis are very submissive to the Indians. One company I worked for had Indian officers and Bangladeshi crew, and at one stage we had a Pakistani captain. The three just didn’t mix, and it was just awful, to the point that I could see very clearly that the Bangladeshis were all tremendously miserable.

On some voyages, we’d be going through the Persian Gulf in the middle of summer, 55 degrees, humidity in the high 80s, low 90s and this one captain, turned the air-conditioning off in the accommodation. It was an old car carrier, so, it was just one long accommodation space, but he turned the air conditioning off from where the officers’ space stopped and where the crew started.

Not only did the crew have to work down on decks which were stinking hot and full of ammonia gas and CO2 all day, but because the animals generate their own heat there was added heat. The crew would come up for their so-called respite at the end of the day, and there was no air conditioning. Some slept on open decks under the stars, still hot, but sometimes they caught a breeze.


Why did the captain do that?

Because he was a jerk.  He was just a complete jerk.

I think the captains are the linchpin to welfare at sea. If you’ve got a good captain who’s got a decent sense of a moral compass, you’ll find the crew are generally looked after and much happier and easier to work with. You get a better outcome for the ship and the company and the animals. If you’ve got a captain that’s for some reason a pain in the neck or a power-tripper, it can be quite difficult.

The captains who caused the greatest difficulty to management and animal welfare were generally relief captains who did not understand how different a livestock carrier is to manage compared to a non-live cargo. The stress levels are through the roof for them, and it was rare that they would return: thankfully.

They were usually so stressed they made life difficult for both the crew and the livestock. If they had the sense to put their pride aside and take advice from others on board, they coped, but were a rare breed, and are to be commended.

The experienced and competent senior officers on a livestock ship are cool under pressure, respect input from people with differing training and expertise and would likely find a “normal” ship boring. I’ve sailed with and learnt so much from some great seafarers.

I’ll always be grateful to them.


How did conflict at home affect crews?

On most of our ships, we didn’t have internet access personally, so communication with home was a difficult thing. Satellite phones are way too expensive for crew to use too often, but when we pass close to land or join the convoy to go into the Suez Canal, there’s a window of connectivity, and everyone’s phones go crazy. Usually news from home brings on a mixture of smiles and melancholy.

One time, there was a lot of Pakistanis on the phone for the whole canal transit, a lot of worried faces, and as we came out of Port Said one of our older crew members went down the gangway and off the ship into a small pilot boat. A few people waved him goodbye. One of the crew members told me: “He’s going home. The Pakistani government has bombed our village.”  Most of the crew’s houses had been bombed, 80 percent were either destroyed or wrecked in some form.

The man taken off the ship’s entire family had been killed, and no one had the heart to tell him; they apparently just told him his wife was sick in hospital. Then we had to forget our land lives, or deaths and continue to tend the animals. There is no option to slow down and grieve on a live export ship.


What impact did cultural difference have on shore time?

When crew go into port in different countries, especially westernised countries, if they’re associated somehow with the live export ships, there’s every chance that they’ll be vilified and possibly verbally attacked about animal welfare issues. But the converse side to that is a lot of them don’t get shore leave and if they do, it’s only for an hour or two. So the fact that they’re exploited to the level that they get bugger all short leave protects them from being vilified by people who know what’s happening to animals as a result of the trade, but don’t understand the physical and personal sacrifices these men make everyday of their contracts to provide care for the animals. The crew don’t understand why they are being cursed at, I tell tem when they ask me that people don’t get the real facts, don’t take it personally, ignore them. I know this well, as this happens to me too, even to this day.

I was teaching quite a few of the crew English, just casually on deck every day, in return they would teach me some Pashtun or Arabic. I’d have a few of them come up to me and go, “Oh, doctor, doctor, I have this word. Can you please explain the meaning and how to say it properly?” and they’d just give me a little piece of paper. Each day I’d have a discussion with them, and they wanted to practice their English. It was nice.

At one stage, one of the loveliest captains awkwardly called me to his office, and he says, “Can you please stop teaching them English?” and I’m like, “Yeah, okay. Why?” and he says, “Because we’ve had too many crew jump ship and leave.” I said: “Oh, okay. I didn’t put that into their head. They weren’t asking me, “Where is the train station?” It was an awkward situation and conversation to have because so many of them were jumping ship in Fremantle, Australia. After that, they didn’t get shore leave in Fremantle.

Thank-you Lynn.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.



AFFECTED BY THIS STORY? Review our Managing Traumatic Stress publication here or go to our publications page to review all our free publications for download. Hard copies can be purchase from The Nautical Institute here.



The HRAS Interview: Dr. Lynn Simpson – Being the Only Woman Onboard – Part 2/3

Being The Only Woman On Board [Part 2/3]

dr%20lynn%20simpsonThe first thing veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson did before boarding the livestock carriers that she worked on for the first time was to slip on a wedding ring. Even though she wasn’t married, it helped to deter unwanted attention from the men she encountered at sea and in port.

In the vast majority of cases, she found the men she worked with to be friendly, respectful, even protective. Then there was the time she woke suddenly in the night, no longer alone in her cabin because there was a man on top of her.

Lynn spoke to HRAS about the best and the worst of being the only woman on board.


What was it like as the only woman on board?

As a vet, I had to develop a way of dealing with unwanted attention if I found the crew were a little bit creepy about me being on board. Each time I joined a ship for the first time and the crew didn’t know me or stories of me hadn’t got across yet, I’d use a weird tactic. This sounds really callous but any animal that’s going to succumb to stress quickly usually collapsed by day one of the voyage or by day one of loading. So, if I knew that there was somebody shadowing me suspiciously throughout the decks and I wanted to get a message through them to the crew, I would find a sick animal that I knew was never going to make it anyway and I would put it on the ground. I’d cut its throat, because that’s what we often had to do at sea. I knew all the right arteries were severed, and I’d walk away.

I would make it look so nonchalant that I probably looked like the most heartless bitch on the planet. It looked like I’d gone to no more effort than flicking my hair behind my ears in the breeze, and I’d just walk off with the animal still thrashing on the ground. I knew it was unconscious – that’s just what they often do.

Very quickly the message would get through to everybody, and no one would stalk me again.

It sounds really awful but, that happened multiple times, usually only once per company or once per new ship. After that, I was usually left alone.


Usually, but not always?

It’s interesting, because people often relate rape to late at night and seedy situations or alcohol consumption, promiscuous dressing. It’s not like that at sea.

One day, I was walking through a ship that I felt very safe in. It was about six o’clock in the evening. It was still daylight, but we’d finished for the day and I was actually clean after the day’s work. I’d come from the officers’ mess and was walking down the corridor. It was a well-lit corridor, and one of the officer’s doors was open.

As I walked past, he came to the doorway. He was somebody I considered a friend. I said: “Hey, how’s it going?” and he reached out and grabbed me, pulled me into his cabin, shut the door and threw me on his bed. Before I knew it, he was on top of me. He pinned me down and was basically explaining – and this is what’s weird – when someone thinks they’re going to rape you, they tell you what they’re going to do. Idiots!

He had me pinned down, but he made the mistake of putting his tongue down my throat, so I bit it. He jumped off screaming at me that I was a slut, at which point, I just stepped out of the cabin and kept walking down the corridor going: “What the hell?”

I think of all those movies you see where kids walk past the proverbial white van and the door opens, the kid disappears inside, the door shuts and that’s it; the kid doesn’t get found again. That’s how quickly that happens; snatched from the corridor.


And the second time someone attempted to rape you?

I was fast sleep in my cabin. I always lock my cabin, but the next thing I know there’s somebody on top of me trying to rape me. It takes a second to sort of work out what’s happening, but I went from fright to fight.

I used to sleep with a dolphin torch next to me which is one of those heavy waterproof torches. I smacked him over the head with it.

Once I got over the fright part, I was so angry. It was ironic, because I was naked in the dark beating the hell out of a man. You would normally just end it, and get him out, but I was actually so, so angry that while I grabbed him and headed to the door, I didn’t just turf him out. I thought: “Hang on, I want another go at this.”

The little table in my cabin was bolted down, and it used to annoy me because I had bruises on my hips from where I’d walk into it all the time in heavy weather. It was a small ship, so we got thrown around a lot. And I thought “Hey, that really hurts; there’s a weapon,” so I smashed the guy into the table a few times until I was satisfied. Then I took him to the door, kicked him out and shut it.

I was told subsequently that the captain had actually given him the master key to my accommodation.


How did you protect yourself after that?

I used to booby-trap the door. I had to join that ship again a couple of years later, and I actually went to the hardware store first and bought some latches. I liquid-nailed the latch to the door, so that if somebody tried to open it from the outside, I would at least hear them.


Why didn’t you report the rape attempts?

I didn’t report them because there were so few women in the trade full stop, let alone sailing.  I was the only one sailing at that time and, to the best of my knowledge, there’s only ever been one woman at a time sailing in the live export trade.

I didn’t report it because I thought: “I’ve got a good reputation at sea”. I think what I’m doing is worthwhile. You can’t sugar-coat it – it’s depressing and it’s hard work, but I believe that my personality type and my veterinary skills mean that I was actually a really pragmatic and positive influence on the ships. I honestly believe I was making a positive difference, even if that difference was to euthanize something quickly; to make the decision that an animal needs to be put out of its misery and do it, because other people would just let them linger and die then throw them overboard afterwards.  I’ve got the gumption to make that decision quickly and get the job done.

So I didn’t want to lose that position on the ship, and I didn’t want to make it more difficult for any woman coming behind me to get a job. I didn’t want companies thinking having a woman on board was a nightmare.

This issue was brought up in a conversation with some friends at a Soldier On meeting – the charity that I go to which helps me with my PTSD. There was a navy woman sitting with me, and a couple of the guys asked that very question: “Why didn’t you report it?”

She and I, at the exact time, and even though she didn’t know my situation, she’d never been on my ships, I’d never been on hers, – we both just looked at this guy and said: “Oh yeah, and then you’ll lose your job.”

With live export, because we’re just contracted voyage by voyage, it’s not like your contract gets shortened. You just don’t get a phone call again.


What about other forms of sexual harassment?

Another time, a captain had been sexually harassing me. Every time I went to the bridge to file my daily report, he would come up to me and say filthy, ridiculous things: “Oh, I had a dream last night, and in my dream you did this, this and this.” I was pretty forthright, and I’d just go “Mate, I don’t wanna hear about your dreams. It’s never gonna happen. Let’s keep this a professional relationship, we’ll get our job done, and this is how the rest of the voyage is gonna proceed, okay?”

It went on and on: “Oh in my dreams you blah, blah, blah” This guy just pushed it, and one day I was halfway through writing a report and I just screwed it up, threw it in his face and said “Fuck off! I’m never coming to your bridge again.” This put the other bridge officers in a difficult position. They pretended not to hear and kept their heads down, charts had never been so interesting apparently.

I didn’t return, and I thought “This will get the message through,” because the Australian Department of Agriculture will realise that they’ve not got daily reports from me. They’ll want to know why, and I’ll have to go to the bridge and answer the phone and say: “Because I’m being sexually harassed.” They’ll step in and do something to help me, because I’m there as their representative. No, they didn’t even notice, and we were only about half way through our voyage.


That wasn’t the end of the story with this captain either, was it?

I hadn’t complained, but when I joined that same ship year’s later, it was the same captain, and he started trying some shenanigans again. I told him: “This time I have a letter sitting at home, and I’ve got a friend that’s prepared to send it to the company,” and it’s a highly respected European company. I said: “I’m pretty sure that they think equality in the workplace is actually a reasonable thing to expect, and that your behaviour is not reasonable. If you carry on, I’ll be making a complaint.”

He carried on. I sent off a letter when I got home to the CEO of the shipping company. To their absolute credit, I got an email back almost immediately apologising. I explained to them that it had happened before, and I didn’t complain because I didn’t want you to think that I was some kind of princess who was out at sea and out of her depth. However, I think it’s really important for any woman coming behind me. I can take care of myself; that’s fine, but someone behind me might not be able to, and I think it’s really important that you know the calibre of this captain.

My understanding is the guy probably lost his job, but I’m not sure.


Were these isolated incidents?

Oh yeah. Apart from that, you would just get the odd person, usually like a lovesick puppy sort of following you around, some young bloke, and you’d have to say: “Go away! Go and phone your girlfriend or something”. But usually they were really lovely, and most of the time, once they get to know you and because, I guess, as a vet I carried a gun and a knife – they were very respectful and, in fact, very protective, and I’m still friends with some of them to this day.  Working in the same conditions and never asking them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself helped a lot. I respected my seafarer colleagues, and it was generally reciprocated.

It’s like you’ve got this shipping family, so when you’ve got a dysfunctional land family like I have, to have this weird shipping family that you meet and leave at the top of a gangway is something beautiful.

Thank-you Lynn.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.


AFFECTED BY THIS STORY? Review our Managing Traumatic Stress publication here or go to our publications page to review all our free publications for download. Hard copies can be purchase from The Nautical Institute here.

Part 3: ‘Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts’ Coming Soon – follow us on Twitter @hratsea

The HRAS Interview: Dr. Lynn Simpson – Maritime Vet: ‘Captains, Caring and Consequences’ Part 1/3

Captains, Caring and Consequences [Part 1/3]

dr%20lynn%20simpsonThere were times when captains wouldn’t allow veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson access to the ships gun to euthanize suffering animals on livestock carriers at sea. There was a fear that, in the wrong hands, the gun, or the barbiturates typically used in practice on land to ease animal suffering, could turn into a means for crew members to commit suicide. The master instead kept these things under lock and key.

Lynn, who now suffers PTSD as a result of her experiences at sea and as a whistleblower ashore, spoke to HRAS about the challenges faced by the crews on livestock carriers.

You have been criticized by animal welfare organizations and concerned individuals for not using standard veterinary euthanasia techniques, instead having to slit animals’ throats or use blunt trauma to the head. What were the captains’ concerns that put you in this position?

When it comes to barbiturates, there’s two reasons: It would probably be quite expensive to do the amount of euthanizing that we do with those drugs, so, there’d be a financial burden. Rarely were they carried. That’s one component, but it was never one that was argued back at me. The big concern was that some captains and companies did not want a euthanasia solution on board, because they were fearful that crew would get hold of it, and they would either use it to attack each other or to suicide.

That meant I had to cut animal throats. It was demoralising as a vet that you’re not even allowed the minimal equipment that our Australian legislation says we should have, or that we are trained to use to meet our Hippocratic oath, which put simply and ironically in the case of the Live Export ships is “do no harm”.


What were living conditions on board like?

One of the interesting things about ours ships compared to the majority of merchant vessels is that we have a crew of 50 to 100. It’s a bigger crew than most ships, and considering most of them are conversions, it’s a bigger crew than most of them are originally designed for. So, often, the accommodation has been retrofitted, and it’s quite cramped. There’ll be four in a cabin, and there might only be a metre between the bunks. Often there’s no ensuite; the crew will use a communal bathroom.  This makes it interesting when you’re in a port and you see the same prostitute go from room to room without visiting the bathroom first.

Photo Credit: Dr. Lynn Simpson

Some of the ships have really rudimentary bathrooms. A lot of the time it was a spout out of the wall with chipped or missing sharp tiles and filthy. One ship I sailed on, the water was always brown as a result of rusty water tanks. They hadn’t been treated properly, hadn’t been looked after, so, you wash in this stuff that looks like opaque Fanta and you’re thinking “I don’t know if I’m cleaner or dirtier now.” Sadly this was one of the newer purpose built ships.

The filthy conditions resulting from working with animals are one of those things you get acclimatised to. The decks are filthy. There’s no two ways about it. We all get covered in shit all day every day. There are repercussions where people get sick, be it the runs or eye infections or sores. The accommodation often smells of musty clothes and shoes trying to dry for the following days work.


What other work stresses do livestock carrier crews face?

The crew works seven days a week, and the majority of non-officers worked ten month contracts. I had one engineer who told me he’d been on 19 months, and he was starting to go a little bit crazy. He was actually the electrician, and they couldn’t find a replacement for him. It was a ship that had dodgy electrics, and we had lots of ventilation blackouts. So, not only was he on there for a very long time, it was really stressful for him because the ship performed poorly. Of course, the minute we lose ventilation, any animals below main deck have got about an hour to live. So he’s under a lot of pressure.

Having a live cargo, regardless, was a stressful thing, because every time we hit heavy weather we knew that it wasn’t just us. We could bunker down in the superstructure and stay safe, but there were animals out there, and we were responsible for looking after them. There were times when we would go on deck when on other ships the crew would not have been allowed to. They would’ve been told to stay inside and keep all the sea doors shut. Instead we walked across slippery rolling decks to get to access points to get further down into the ship and tend to the animals needs. I guess we pushed a lot of envelopes that most ships wouldn’t just because we have live cargo.


What about pay?

Knowing the disparity of money was something that was depressing for a lot of the crew. They knew that the Australian stockmen were on much higher wages than they were. If, for example, we had a British captain, he was on a much higher wage than the Filipino chief officer. Whilst it wasn’t something that people dwelled on, it was something that came up as, “we’re getting exploited,” or “now that I’ve done so many months at sea, I can actually start to make money because I’ve paid off my agent’s fee.”


You have made headlines internationally now for whistleblowing about animal welfare on live export ships, but your role as whistleblower started in support of seafarers at sea. How did that come about?

A lot of the crew are so reticent and submissive about reporting problems with a ship’s maintenance or management that they often asked me do it. They knew that I had to make reports anyway, so they’d discretely take me to different areas of the ship and show me something that was actually maybe structurally dangerous. I’d find a way to link it up with animal health or simply crew safety, and then I would report it to the relevant authority.

In one case, upper tier decks had been collapsing – they’d collapsed on an empty voyage. Luckily the men were not in there cleaning at the time or they would have been squashed. If the decks had been full, they would have just pancaked the sheep below.

Often third world crew don’t have the confidence to complain, and I suspect it’s because they worry that they’ll be seen as whistleblowers and won’t get another contract. Many only financially subsist as it is. It was the least I could do for them given my position.


That did indeed happen to you when you were removed from your position with the Australian government after filing a report that showed pictures of what it was like for animals on live export ships. That, combined with your experiences at sea, has left you with PTSD. How did it develop?

As a vet, you’re trained to save lives, and you’re taught how to use these wiz bang gadgets, MRI machines and ultrasound etc. Then you go out on a ship that’s covered in rust, and shit and death and essentially given rudimentary medications and essentially have to bring your own equipment or improvise. I’ve stitched many a wound with dental floss, ridiculous when you carry a multi million dollar consignment.

With PTSD, what they say is essentially it doesn’t have to be one massive traumatic event, it can be a compounding of pressures and stress. Everybody has a metaphorical stress bucket with a drainage hole, and when your bucket is overwhelmed, and the drainage does not meet the fill rate, that’s when you can succumb to PTSD.

I believe that what I was being exposed to, and I presume a lot of the other seafarers that I’ve worked with, all day every day, was often filling that bucket, especially if you’re a caring person. Every now and then, you would hit a point that you felt overwhelmed.

Photo Credit: Dr. Lynn Simpson

Such a day for me was when I had to kill 55 Damara lambs. They’re just so cute, but it wasn’t because they were cute, it was the frustration and the wastefulness of the fact that they should never have been there. There is legislation in place that should have protected them from ever being born on that ship, to keep pregnant ewes from such long voyages. Grown men cried; some tried to hide lambs. It was heartbreaking.

I killed them, and I was just raging. I was so angry. I went up to my cabin, and I knew I just needed to take ten minutes out away from any more stimuli. I had a friend in Bahrain – our ship was in Saudi Arabia at the time –and she had been a counsellor in the past. She’s always been a really good person to talk to, and she understands shipping. So, I phoned her, and she just was great. At the end of my tirade when my bucket was less overwhelmed, she very calmly said, “You do realise you probably have PTSD?”

I was more aware of what I was doing after that, and I think you learn coping strategies when you work in extreme environments. People in the military and emergency services certainly do.

Then there was another incident where I had to kill 22 fully-grown cattle one night without a gun. The Russians had confiscated it, and I’d run out of sedation that was useful, and I had to try to knock cattle unconscious, by blunt trauma over the head with a fire axe. When I see footage like that on TV, everyone is saying, “Oh, look at those bastards!” I’m thinking: “Yep, that was me. I was getting paid to do that by the Australian organisation that I worked for under Australian legislation.”

But, it wasn’t until I was actually working with the government to improve animal welfare, and I was told you can no longer do your job in any capacity, because the exporters don’t like you, that I just went into a catatonic state of depression. For over two months, I was just completely uncharacteristically not myself. I’d sleep 23 hours a day, and I wouldn’t eat. I was put on antidepressants; they made me suicidal, so I took myself off them. I had massive feelings of hopelessness, wastefulness, as in you feel like you wasted your time, and your training, and all the effort you put into improving something.


Are you troubled by dreams?

I have dreams all the time. In my case, because a lot of my stuff is now in the legal forum, I spend my nights dreaming about counter arguments. I’m not sitting there thinking, “Oh, those animals with their gushing blood; it was all so gruesome.” There’s been a bit of that, some dreams about being hunted by pirates, but very little. Most of mine involves me arguing with someone about an injustice, and then I wake up with an anxiety attack and a heart rate of 120.

We hear the classic story of a soldier who has flashbacks of a battle, an explosion, or something awful, but I think we need to start understanding how many people who are essentially civilians are affected. People with challenging jobs are at risk, seafarers to start with, because of the social isolation, the remote work environment, the deprivation of a lot of things, be it the psychological or provisional.


How are you feeling now?

I struggled when I was first diagnosed: “What does this mean for me?” and then somebody explained to me that it’s essentially a psychological fact that only well-meaning, good people get PTSD. So, essentially, there is no shame in it, and I pretty much wear it as a badge of honour. In fact, I should get t-shirts made, because I now know so many people with PTSD, and every single one of them is just the most decent human being I’ve ever met.


Are you ostracised by colleagues?

One thing that is very interesting is that, whilst openly you are ostracised by your colleagues and ex-colleagues as a whistleblower, some do still covertly make contact, help and keep you informed of actions that may be of use to your situation. They may not be outspoken about it, but many believe and agree in what you have said, done and stood up for. I suspect they are concerned for their own jobs.

Organisations that persecute whistleblowers should be aware that they may have only persecuted one person and their opinion, but popular opinion may concur with that persecuted individual.

Thank-you Lynn.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.



AFFECTED BY THIS STORY? Review our Managing Traumatic Stress publication here or go to our publications page to review all our free publications for download. Hard copies can be purchase from The Nautical Institute here.

Part 2: ‘Being the Only Woman Onboard’ – Coming soon.

The HRAS Interview: Bruce Reid, CEO of the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF)

Bruce-ReidUnifying the World’s Maritime Rescue Effort

Nearly 400,000 people drown every year, and we all need to be doing more, says Bruce Reid, CEO of the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF).

The IMRF is a charity, and member organisations share their search and rescue ideas, technologies and experiences and cooperate with one another to achieve their common humanitarian aim: preventing loss of life in the world’s waters.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Bruce about the charity’s role in helping to alleviate the high number of migrant drowning deaths and the need for a global approach to search and rescue (SAR).


HRAS: How is the IMRF involved in the migrant crisis in Europe?

IMRF LogoThe IMRF has coordinated the support provided by our European members helping with the migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea. Members provided boats, training, equipment and other support to local members of the Hellenic Rescue Team who are in turn saving thousands of lives.

Our help has included the provision of rescue boats by the Dutch NGO KNRM. The Swedish NGO SSRS, German NGO DGzRS and the UK and Ireland NGO RNLI have also provided boats, training and support. The Norwegian volunteer rescue service RS has provided a rescue cruiser and crew to the Frontex operation and has also secured funds to support the Hellenic Rescue Team.

As a result, there are now more trained crew and boats available on Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos. Our members’ support for Hellenic Rescue Team has saved lives and given the local rescue services a much needed boost.

It has been a truly international effort, and its legacy will be a well-trained and resourced volunteer maritime SAR response capability for the Hellenic Rescue Team, cooperating with the Hellenic Coast Guard to keep people safe on Greek waters.


HRAS: Why is building such capability important?

Building capability rather than reacting to tragedy should be the priority for maritime SAR.

To this end, we support the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s push to find solutions to the widening funding gap for SAR operations and his move to direct investment from external crisis intervention to providing local and national SAR response capability. This capability should include managing initial crisis response and then structuring plans to escalate efforts with international support.

The IMRF is also championing the completion of the IMO’s Global SAR plan. The plan aims to support governments and SAR organisations internationally to deliver an integrated sea rescue service wherever mariners might need assistance. It also aims to ensure that when people are in distress, SAR communications service providers and SAR authorities know where to send or relay distress alerts.

It is clear that not all humanitarian crises can be planned and managed for, but many have common characteristics, and one is the lack of sophistication in local and national SAR coordination. We need to see countries develop greater co-ordination capability.

We want to assist in building improved and fully coordinated SAR response capability in areas of high risk, thus reducing the global drowning death toll of migrants, notably in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. We also recognise that this is a long term aim as is the migrant rescue problem.


HRAS: How does IMRF view the interactions between the various SAR entities operating in the region?

Co-operation between the agencies and the receptiveness of the search and rescue teams operating in the Aegean are big positives. This type of cooperation needs to be built on. There needs to be further development of the coastal states coordination and response capability so they can actively manage SAR in their waters. More effective ways to stop the push need to be found so rescue is not needed.

One of our core activities is helping maritime SAR organisations understand how best to communicate and co-ordinate, and given the complexities of bringing together different parties with varying objectives, operations in the Aegean have been very successful. But, we need to get better, and that’s why we constantly engage in workshops to try and help develop best practice in communication and co-ordination where it falls short.

So, we need to bring the operational people together to share the lessons learned.


How do you view the role of merchant vessels in the migrant crisis?

The recovery of large numbers of people from the water is effectively a mass rescue operation. We cannot allow the merchant vessels to become the front line of SAR for these crises as was the case to start with in the Mediterranean. The responsibility for rescue sits firmly with the coastal states, and this fact needs to be reinforced.

When vessels of opportunity are used, it is imperative that they are provided with a safe port to off-load the people as quickly as possible. The Coordination Centres need to take responsibility for the people being rescued until they are safe ashore. The merchant vessel is not a place of safety.


HRAS: Has there been any members arrested for facilitating the entry of migrants into Europe?

Our member organisations have experience in maritime SAR and work with the authorities in their countries, so we’ve had no issues, but there was a massive response from willing volunteers with boats wanting to head out and save people not understanding the risks or appreciating the operating rules.

We have seen reports where NGOs, not accustomed to the rules relating to maritime rescue, were not in communication with the authorities and were therefore perceived as a risk. The risk of this happening is accentuated by the varying regulations that apply at sea – as highlighted in the Human Rights at Sea guidance Volunteer Maritime Rescuers: Awareness of Criminalisation. To help with this in the Aegean, we worked alongside the Hellenic Coast Guard to assist in coordinating the NGO response, including providing advice to some of the new maritime SAR NGOs.


HRAS: How important are human rights issues to your work?

As you know, we declared our full support for the Human Rights at Sea guidance supporting SAR operations, because it focuses strongly on European legislation and international search and rescue obligations.

The guidelines target volunteer maritime rescuers, but they are also equally applicable to NGOs, civil society organisations and even private shipmasters. There’s no doubt that the need for this resource has been highlighted by the recent events in the Mediterranean, where many NGOs have responded to the call to help bolster the local maritime SAR capability for rescuing people in distress. Many of these groups not only found themselves being confronted by the difficulty of interpreting local authorities’ rules and conventions but also having to contend with cross-border issues that they would not have encountered in their home territories.

With that in mind, the guidance provided in the Human Rights at Sea document will be an invaluable resource for current and future rescuers, helping them to minimise the risk of their humanitarian actions being in conflict with the laws and regulations that govern rescue at sea.

The only challenge SAR organisations should face in undertaking their maritime rescue operations is with the elements, not with authorities. With this in mind, it is important to keep the events in the Mediterranean in context. In many ways, this is not core maritime search and rescue. The people smugglers heading out of Libya “stage” the distress to make money from the migrants. So the rescue services know where they are and effectively go and try to collect them before the unsafe unseaworthy boat they have been sent out in sinks.

As long as the people come and end up in distress, they must be rescued.


HRAS: The migrant issue is now front page news. Has interest in the IMRF grown accordingly?

Interest in the IMRF’s global activities increased during 2015 as a result of the World Maritime Rescue Congress and the escalating migrant problem. A number of feature pieces were published about our work, and, apart from broadcast coverage of the Congress, most notably by Deutsche Welles, there was also extensive pick-up on stories from the event including the session on the migrant crisis, the Rescue Boat Guidelines and the Mass Rescue Operations library.

During the year there were stories across more than 50 different magazines and on-line publications resulting in more than 100 articles. These were principally in the maritime trade publications but also in some national newspapers and across a variety of social media.

The media that most consistently report on IMRF stories are The Maritime Executive, Ship Management International, All About Shipping, Seafarer Times and the Shipping Tribune.

Our challenge now is that the people drowning in the Mediterranean are no longer front page news, and yet they still come. In one day last June, the Italian Coast Guard was coordinating 41 rescues at one time all involving large numbers of people, all mass rescue operations. With up to 15,000 people per week still being rescued, there is not the attention and concern that was there 12 months ago. This has a negative impact on the NGO’s who are reliant on donations to do the work they are doing.

As I started saying at the beginning, we must do more.

Thank-you Bruce.



The HRAS Interview: Alexandra Bilak – Director Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

Migrants are the tip of the iceberg

Hundreds of thousands of people have put their life at risk at sea to reach European shores. Their bravery and despair has drawn wide media attention. In reality, though, they are the tip of the iceberg.

There were 40.8 million people displaced within national borders worldwide as a result of conflict and violence at the end of 2015 – the highest figure ever recorded and twice the number of refugees in the world.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Alexandra Bilak, political scientist and Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, to find out about the plight of these people.

Alexandra lived and worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya for 10 years and has worked extensively across Central, East and West Africa. She has directed a number of projects on forced migration in conflict and post-conflict contexts and has published extensively on these themes.


HRAS: Where are these 40.8 million internally displaced people?

Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan have featured in the list of the ten largest internally displaced populations every year since 2003.

In 2015, there were 27.8 million new displacements associated with conflict, violence and disasters in 127 countries. This is roughly equivalent to every man, woman and child in New York City, London, Paris and Cairo grabbing what they could carry and fleeing their homes in search of safety.

Yemen, Syria and Iraq accounted for over half of this total. Outside the Middle East, the countries with the highest numbers of people fleeing were Ukraine, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Central African Republic and South Sudan.


HRAS: Away from the media spotlight and often outside the reach of humanitarian agencies, many of these people struggle to survive in subhuman conditions. What are conditions like?

The majority of internally displaced people live in overcrowded rented accommodation, schools and other public spaces, or tents and other forms of makeshift shelter. They face a wide range of protection needs and vulnerabilities including lack of shelter options, lack of safety and security, harassment, lack of livelihood options, gender-based violence, loss of documentation, food insecurity and limited access to healthcare, education, water and sanitation.

Internally displaced people have few livelihood options, and many are dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival.

Displacement has also forced many families to separate, and there are large numbers of unaccompanied minors.


HRAS: How does conflict and violence contribute to displacement?

There were 8.6 million new cases of displacement caused by conflict and violence in 2015, an average of 24,000 a day. This phenomenon has been on an upward trend since 2003. Some 4.8 million people were newly displaced in the Middle East alone, significantly more than in the rest of the world combined.

Displacement in the Middle East and north Africa has snowballed since the wave of social uprisings known as the Arab spring in late 2010 and the rise of the Islamic State. The region accounted for the highest number of people fleeing violence in 2015 by a wide margin.

Yemen, Syria and Iraq accounted for over half of the total. The political and security situation in Yemen deteriorated dramatically in 2015, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis shows few, if any, signs of abating. Violence displaced eight per cent of the country’s population, or 2.2 million people, during the year – more than in any other country in the world.


HRAS: Do you see the situation changing in the future?

When it comes to conflict-related displacement, obviously the root of this phenomenon is the lack of political solutions and political commitment to end conflict. Until that changes, it’s impossible to say whether there will be more conflicts in the future. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything indicating a sign of reversing that trend.


HRAS: Violence arising from organized crime is also increasing globally. Where are the hot spots?

Organised criminal violence associated with drug trafficking and gang activity has reached epidemic proportions in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in recent years. As

a result, there were at least a million internally displaced people in the region as of the end of 2015, up from 848,000 at the end of 2014, many of them driven from cities suffering the highest homicide rates in the world and levels of violence comparable with a war zone.


HRAS: How does displacement associated with conflict and violence compare to that of natural disasters?

Disasters displaced around 19.2 million people across 113 countries in 2015, more than twice the number who fled conflict and violence. Over the past eight years, a total of 203.4 million, or an average of 25.4 million displacements have been recorded every year. As in previous years, south and east Asia dominated in terms of absolute figures, but no region of the world was unaffected.

India, China and Nepal had the highest numbers, with 3.7 million, 3.6 million and 2.6 million respectively. In India, the impact of two major flood and storm events were responsible for 81 percent of the displacement, forcing three million people to flee their homes.

Monsoon flooding associated with cyclone Komen, which struck neighbouring Bangladesh in late July, displaced 1.2 million, mostly in the northern and central states of West Bengal, Odisha, Manipur, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Three large-scale typhoons and a flood disaster together triggered 75 percent of the displacement in China. Three typhoons, Chan-Hom, Soudelor and Dujan, struck four eastern provinces between July and September, destroying homes, causing landslides and flooding and, between them, displacing more than 2.2 million people.


HRAS: Each year, a United Nations resolution calls on nations to provide data on displaced people. How is that working?

The extent to which that is achieved varies from context to context. Some countries just don’t have the capacity, and there are many gaps. First of all, we are still not capturing all situations of internal displacement.

We are only just starting now to look at people displaced by development projects across the world. As of today, there is still no global data on that phenomenon. The most frequently cited global estimate for people displaced by development projects is 15 million people a year since the mid-2000s, but this is just an estimate that doesn’t capture the full extent of the phenomenon

Monitoring on internally displaced people is very different from doing so for refugees, as internally displaced people are seldom registered and often difficult to identify. On top of this, probably the biggest challenge we face is accessing information over time. We tend to get a lot of information when people originally become displaced but then the information trails off as it’s difficult to obtain data on the processes that lead to the end of displacement and the number of people who have fled across international borders.


HRAS: Is the distinction between internal and cross-border flight helpful in a globalised world?

There is something to be said for and against distinguishing between internal and cross-border flight. Our mandate is about internal displacement, so displacement within the country’s borders. That is important because it sets the responsibilities in a very precise place – the national government.

These are people who are citizens in their own country and who are displaced within their own country, so the state is responsible for them and that means that they have a very specific set of rights and legal frameworks that apply.

That is very different from cross-border displacement. When someone becomes a refugee in another country, they fall under international humanitarian law.

That is important, whereas it is perhaps less important in the understanding the root causes of displacement and in looking at people’s vulnerabilities. Regardless of whether someone actually ends up crossing a border or not, the reasons for the initial displacement are pretty much the same. A Syrian refugee today in Europe originally fled for the same reasons as a Syrian internally displaced person who has remained within the borders.


HRAS: In 2016, for the first time, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre published its estimates and analysis of people internally displaced by conflict and disasters in a single report. The Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016 (GRID 2016) aimed to provide a more holistic picture of the phenomenon, regardless of cause. Why?

What we have seen over the years is that many situations of internal displacement are actually caused by multiple factors. There’s often an overlap between conflict and disasters and political and social factors. By producing a single report, we wanted to refocus on internal displacement itself rather than the drivers and to better demonstrate the overlaps in the future.


HRAS: What further insights do you hope to gain in the future?

We would like gain a better understanding of the tipping points: what is it that determines onward movement once you’ve become displaced the first time?

Many of the refugees that we are seeing today in Europe started off as internally displaced people. They fled their homes and they probably moved internally within the country before they ultimately decided to leave the country. Understanding what either facilitates or inhibits cross-border movement is crucial. What is it that determines that some people are able to leave whereas other people weren’t?

The crossing of the border is the symptom of a failure at the national level to provide adequate protection to these people, so it is better understanding those factors at play that is needed in order to prevent these movements in the future, or at least better manage them.

When it comes to disaster-related displacement, the majority of displacement we’ve recorded has been attributed to climate-related hazards like floods and storms. Obviously with the effects of climate change in the future that are going to exacerbate the variance in weather patterns, we can only expect that displacements will increase, particularly as vulnerability and exposure of people is not likely to decrease in the future.

Thank-you Alexandra.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.

The HRAS Interview: Giorgia Linardi – Mediterranean Migrants

Mediterranean Migrants: Becoming Part of the System

At sea, rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, 25-year-old Giorgia Linardi met a woman that reminder of her mother. Like her mother, the woman was a doctor, a specialist; their ages were similar. But, unlike her mother, this woman had lost her family, her home, had no phone to call her brother in Germany, and so was prostituting herself for $5 a time, as she tried to raise the money to buy herself a spot on a rubber boat to Europe.

HRAS spoke to Giorgia, a volunteer legal advisor with the rescue NGO, Sea-Watch, about the plight of the people on those boats and the razor-sharp dilemma of would-be rescuers.


You have been undertaking rescues with Sea-Watch for a year now, both in the central Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. What condition are the people in when you find them?

Leaving Turkey, people have to hide themselves in the woods. They are abused, persecuted, arrested, tortured and sometimes the women have to prostitute themselves in order to get on board. In Libya, they are detained for months in prison or prison-like houses where they eat on the floor and are beaten all the time.

There are major crimes related to people smuggling involved in some cases. I have seen cases of women travelling with a group of children of the same age. These women are offered cheaper rates to act on behalf of human traffickers working in the slave trade to Europe.

All these things mean that the physical and mental condition we find these people in can be horrible. They usually haven’t eaten for a long time. They are highly dehydrated if they have been at sea for some time, sometimes having drunk seawater.

This is particularly the case in the central Med, where the trip is longer than in the Aegean. In the central Med, Sea-Watch operates in a tract of sea that is 260 nautical miles wide, whereas in the Aegean the passage from Turkey to Greece is five nautical miles.

In the Aegean, they are generally in better condition, but winter is very cold there. In rubber boats, they are literally freezing. We’ve had cases of people needing limbs removed after their journey, because their hypothermia was too advanced for the doctors to save them. Treated promptly, amputation could have been avoided.

It seems like few Europeans empathize with these people. They feel the people making these journeys are so different from us, and this makes me angry. We cannot see ourselves in the same situation, of course, because it is so horrible. We are not used to it, and yet these people are seldom able to speak for themselves. When they do, the only thing they can do is make a desperate plea for help. This is a very dehumanizing situation to be in.


Initially, wooden boats were more commonly used in the central Med, but now rubber boats are commonly being used by traffickers in both regions. How does this impact rescue efforts?

Around 150 people can be crammed on a rubber boat which is made from material just a millimetre or two thick, and extremely unstable. The boats have very small engines that are incapable of propelling the weight of all the people crowded on. Usually the women and children are in the middle, and we cannot even see them, so we often don’t know how many people are actually on the boat. When you take them off, it’s like a magic trick. You can’t imagine where they are all coming from.

The situation is problematic during their journey, because they can’t move, and they risk suffocation. We witnessed one case where a child died in the water inside the boat. The search and rescue team brought him to shore, but it was too late.

The rubber boats usually carry less people than wooden boats, though, and there is still something you can hang on to if it sinks. Wooden boats sink quickly, and you have two or three hundred people falling into the water all at once.

How are relations between NGO rescuers and Coast Guard agencies?

Usually, in the central Med, the smugglers give each rubber boat a satellite phone so they can make a distress call. The boats are not meant to make it to Europe really, just out to where they can be picked up. There is a rescue coordination centre managed by the Coast Guard in Rome, and they receive the distress calls and then direct the rescue boats.

In the central Med, we work very well with the Coast Guard. The NGOs, such as MSF, MOAS, Sea-Watch and others, are the only other operators with a search and rescue mandate. There are a lot of naval ships in the area, and they will assist if needed, but it is not their sole mandate like it is the NGOs’.

In the Aegean, our relationship with the Coast Guard has always been a little bit more difficult. They do not trust the work of the NGOs and have prohibited us from patrolling, because they see us as a “pull factor” encouraging people to attempt the crossing. They have threatened to accuse us of facilitating illegal immigration even if we only assist boats once they cross the border between Turkey and Greece. So, it’s been a bit up and down, and there is not the centralized coordination that there is in the central Med.


What are the issues from a human rights perspective?

What happens to these people before they leave and as they make their journey is a violation of many basic human rights. These people have no choice other than taking the sea route and putting themselves in a very dangerous situation to enter Europe. It’s the only way they can flee, because we don’t allow legal passage, safe passage.

They are people who have no other place to go – most of them. Of course, there are different cases, but to have to put yourself in a situation of distress to initiate the obligation of rescue at sea, that is really perverse. It is a violation of the right to life because Europe is not providing an efficient and international search and rescue system despite years of having these crossings happen.

The situation is also difficult because we are working in a legal vacuum. There is a huge legal framework in terms of search and rescue, and for sure, each state has an obligation to rescue anyone found in distress at sea, no matter whether they are tourists, migrants or refugees. The problem is that there is no agreed definition of distress.

To the Greek Coast Guard, a rubber boat full of people who could potentially make it to shore is not a distress case, so they don’t need to assist. Actually, the Greek coast can be very treacherous, and we would assist boats in the Aegean to approach the rocky shoreline to ensure they had a safe passage. We have witnessed many incidents where the boat’s engine would stop or a tube deflate. It is important to be there on the spot, otherwise it’s too late


While on board you act as legal advisor for the Sea-Watch team. Why is this necessary?

My biggest job for the organization is to make sure that we stay on the safe side of the law and to train crews about the risks and responsibilities related to their engagement in rescue at sea. We are always being threatened with arrest for facilitating illegal immigration. The situation is sad, because instead of having support for humanitarian action at sea, we are facing a lot of issues. We have had to limit our actions in many cases, especially in the Aegean, because of this threat of being arrested.

At the same time, I understand that it is very easy for organizations like us to end up being part of the smuggling system, because we don’t have any boundaries. It would be very easy for us to establish contacts on the Turkish shore or the Libyan shore and get more information about the people who leave.

Then again, you never know who you are talking to. It might even be that you are actually becoming part of the smuggling system. We try to stay on the safe side, but it is tricky. There is a subtle different between helping people and becoming part of the business. We are on the edge.


There is resistance in some sections of European society to accepting migrants. Do you see this as justifiable?

At one shipwreck, I remember seeing a baby bottle full of milk, just floating there. That feels very wrong to me. I know it is a huge problem. Where are we going to put all the people that are coming? How are we going to integrate them? It is a very difficult task for Europe, but at the same time there is no choice.

As a free, democratic institution, we have to assist these people. It is an act of solidarity, of civilization. You cannot just shut the door to people that are fleeing what they are fleeing. As a European citizen, I do not accept that these people should be drowning literally before our eyes.

While being active in search and rescue is seen as being a “pull factor” that increases the rate of landing success, the reality is that these people are going to cross anyway.

My feeling is that this is just the start of the migration phenomenon, not the end. Most recently, we have started seeing people coming from Egypt – a trip that takes at least a week, so we are expecting the worst this summer.


What does the future hold for Sea-Watch?

 We will continue operating at least until the end of summer. Then we will be asking ourselves, what is the political sense of this, because, on one hand, it is important to have assets at sea to conduct rescues. On the other hand, our aim at the beginning was to be a provocation to the institutions of Europe. We are just European citizens, and we are rescuing people. We can do it, so you can do it – you have to do it!

What is happening, though, is that we are substituting ourselves for them. We have become part of a system that does not take responsibility. The question is, should we continue for ever, or at some point, should we stop and make that statement. That is a hard decision to make, because there are people in need of help.

 Thank-you Giorgia.

The HRAS Interview: Steve Trent, Co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)

Steve Trent

Over fishing and Commonplace Violence in Thailand

“In all my experience, over two decades, I cannot think of situations that I’ve seen where extreme violence has been as commonplace as it is in Thailand,” says Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), talking about Thailand’s seafood industry.

It’s an industry that he says stands out globally for its environmental and human rights abuses, and one, therefore, that if turned around, could set a valuable example for positive change across a wide range of industries throughout the world.

Trent points out that one United Nations survey found that 59 percent of seafarers surveyed had witnessed the murder of a crew member.

“All too often, vulnerable people have been trafficked on to the vessels, and many of them are actually being used as slaves. There’s no intention of paying them and no intention of releasing them. They are slaves in every sense of the word.”

Myo Min Naing, 21, is one victim in thousands. He was promised a good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand before being trafficked into the country. He was transported with five others in a marked police car, driven by men in plain clothes, before being forced onto a fishing vessel.

He was compelled to work on the boat for ten months without pay before he managed to escape. He and his fellow crewmembers suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf: “I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored and he hit me from behind. It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious, and he smashed my face against the ice.”

HRAS spoke to Trent about the issues and what the U.K.-based charity is doing to help people like Naing.

HRAS: The collaborations that have made the widespread use of slave labour possible span Thai society. How can it have reached such a level?

When we started to examine it, the Thai fishing industry was completely out of control. There was no coherent fisheries management regime, and that led to an explosion in the number of boats and therefore the capacity in the industry. This in turn led to the fishing down of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand such that most of the high value species are gone.

The boats need to stay out longer, use more fuel and fish harder to catch a product that is diminishing all the time. This, therefore, means diminishing economic returns for the vessel operators. It is one of the primary motivations behind using bonded and slave labour.

The situation has reached the point where today, where if you took away that free or very cheap labour, many of those vessels that are operating quite simply wouldn’t be economic any more.

HRAS: How many slaves are there out on the boats?

From evidence obtained directly from our own investigations, we are sure its hundreds upon hundreds. By collective analysis, if you look at the United Nations survey, information from the Guardian, witness testimonies and other sources, you can see that it’s much larger numbers. There’s somewhere between 650,000 and 900,000 workers in the Thai seafood sector, and best estimates suggest that over 90 percent of them are migrant workers. You can say large numbers of those have been trafficked in, so you start to get an idea of the scale.

HRAS: EJF investigations have resulted in a number of reports and films that highlight the problems. What else have you been doing?

The recommendations we have made in the reports are not just a shopping list of ad-hoc nice to have ideas. They are finely tuned to the practical needs of Thailand, and we are always happy to provide precise detail and depth. So when we talk about vessel monitoring systems for example, I’ve had somebody in Bangkok sitting in the government command and control centre training people.

We are trying to deliver mechanisms that will enhance transparency and traceability. That’s the bedrock, because once you have that, then independent scrutiny can be applied and you have the ability to police change over time.

We have a fairly finely calibrated advocacy. We are not necessarily going out to huge numbers of individuals, but we try to talk to individuals and organizations that have specific points of influence within the sector. In Thailand, I’ve met personally with the deputy prime minister and other key ministers including the labour minister, foreign minister and agriculture ministry and the chief of the navy. That is the level at which we seek to engage and operate.

We work at comparable levels commercially in the Thai seafood industry’s major markets. The sustainable shrimp taskforce was originally set up at our request. We suggested the idea for the industry to get together and start addressing the issues that they had in their supply chain and the leverage they could bring by applying the pressure of their corporate dollars or their ability to change their sourcing and production methods.

HRAS: Thailand remains at the lowest level in the Trafficking in Persons reporting scheme, yet change is occurring slowly. What has been achieved to date?

We’ve now got a situation where the legal fundamentals are in place in Thailand to eradicate human trafficking. Over the last few years, Thailand has adopted a comprehensive range of fisheries and labour management laws.

Additionally, there’s been quite significant commercial pressure exerted through the diversion of investment that would arguably have gone to Thailand but has now gone to neighbouring states. That’s really significant, not because we want some sort of crude punitive punishment but because money talks. If people see money moving away, they realize that they have to act.

We have also seen a focus on reputation in Thailand. People often talk about Asian states and their concern for reputation, but in my experience, governments all over the world have a high regard for their reputation.

Big companies are also looking at their brand reputation and at protecting their market share, and they are asking: Do we really want to be associated with a product that is being produced by slaves? Almost universally the answer is “no”.

HRAS: EJF was founded in 2000. What prompted did you start it?

Protecting the environment is more than conservation. It is about equity, securing a fairer future and justice for those who need it most. When all the fish have been taken illegally, what happens to the coastal communities and all those people dependent on the resources?

When we set the organization up, I think it was true to say that there were very few organisations or even individuals that were explicitly linking environmental security and human rights, and we saw there was a very clear need.

At the time, there was a predominance of western organizations that would fly in to save the day so to speak but all too often they left nothing behind. There are amazing organisations out there, so I’m not being unduly critical. I’m just highlighting what we saw, and I think to achieve enduring change there is a very real need to localize the solutions to issues as well as bringing outside scrutiny and attention. One is not exclusive of the other.

HRAS: In many cases, you say, it has been hard to quantify success. What keeps you going?

The world has changed hugely over the past 15 years, and I’m a professional optimist. I believe in the ability to change and secure positive development. I’m also a passionate believer in the idea that it’s better to light a candle than to rage against the darkness.

I think small acts can add up to relatively grand change, so I’d much rather try and engage than sit back and bemoan the problems. Anybody who’s lived in the world of campaigning and advocacy in the human rights or environmental sectors knows how hard it is to secure change that is durable, but it is possible and it’s very motivating when you see it happen.

HRAS: There’s a shadow image to the successes and that is the simple question that you have to pose implicitly which is what would have happened had nobody tried anything?

In Europe, EJF is part of a collaboration with WWF, Oceana and the Pew Charitable Trusts tackling the E.U.’s illegal fishing problems. In the past, you have also collaborated with Greenpeace and Oxfam. What plans do you have for future collaborations?

We will maintain our investigations, and we are one of the few groups that conduct investigations at sea as well as on land. We’ll also maintain our high level advocacy at ministerial level and our delivery of appropriate solutions.

Because the organization is specifically set up such that it doesn’t need to be a brand in its own right, we didn’t want to tie our ability to operate to brand awareness, we are able to collaborate with organizations quite efficiently and effectively. I’m very keen on collaboration, because there’s too many people who think they have the answer and almost always, whilst you can play a part, you can’t deliver the whole, so working collectively and leveraging different assets and skills is a valuable thing.

EJF’s evidence of illegal fishing in West Africa has prompted arrests and million in fines levied against pirate fishing vessels. The charity has secured action from the U.S. Department of State towards halting human trafficking, and its investigative work into cotton in Uzbekistan led to one of the world’s most repressive governments signing U.N. conventions to end forced labour. EJF has also helped secure a global ban on a deadly pesticide. It has protected wildlife and wild places, from turtles in Liberia, mangrove forests in Brazil to wetlands in Cambodia.

HRAS looks forward to collaborating with EJF in the future. Thank-you, Steve.