HRAS Interview No. 28: NGO Confronts Abortion Rights at Sea

Last year’s Zika virus outbreak saw a dramatic increase in demand for safe abortions in Latin-American countries.

The virus can cause foetal brain developmental problems, and data from Women on Web, an NGO that provides access to safe abortions in countries where they are not universally available, was used to verify the jump in what activists and doctors had been reporting as an acute need for abortion services. The World Health Organization predicts that the Zika virus will affect four million people globally in 2017, but the associated risks are just one of many reasons why a woman may seek an abortion.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts

Women on Web is an extension of the NGO Women on Waves. Both NGOs were founded by Dr Rebecca Gomperts with the aim of bringing legal abortions and reproductive health services to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

Sailing in international waters gives Women on Waves the freedom to conduct abortions legally, so long as the vessel flies the flag of a country where abortion is legal. The NGO has sailed vessels to Ireland, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and, most recently, Guatemala. In this South American country, abortion is only legal if the woman’s life is at risk. However, around 65,000 abortions are performed there illegally each year.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Dr. Gomperts about women’s rights and the challenges the NGOs face.

How many abortions are performed around the world?

Dr Rebecca Gomperts talking to media in Spain

There are 43 million abortions taking place every year throughout the world. In the Netherlands and the U.S., one out of five (Netherlands) or one out of three (U.S.) women will have an abortion once or twice in their lifetime.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, because there is good sexual education and contraception is widely available.

The lowest abortion rate in the world is eight per thousand per year in women of child bearing age. That’s translates to a rate of one in five women having an abortion in their lifetime. It is the minimum rate that can be achieved, because contraceptives fail, and that is the most common grounds for having an abortion in the Netherlands. Women used contraceptives, but they didn’t work.

Are women of certain religious, cultural or social backgrounds most affected by lack of access to abortion services?

It doesn’t matter what religion or what race women are. What matters is their socio-economic background and whether or not they can afford to have safe abortions. That’s all: in any country, in any religion.

The problem occurs when there’s no safe abortion services available. This doesn’t prevent abortions from happening; it just creates social injustice, because the women in the country that have money, that are in higher social classes, that have access to doctors there, are able to get an abortion even though it is very expensive. In Brazil, for example, an illegal abortion with a doctor can cost at least $1,500 dollars.

Alternatively, women are traveling to have an abortion. We see this in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal, so women have to travel to the U.K. An abortion for women that live in the U.K. is free, but it’s not for women who live in Northern Ireland. They need at least 2,000 Euros.

So, it’s the poor women, the women who don’t have access to information, who are actually effected by restrictive abortion laws. That is the heart of this issue. An anti-abortion law is not going to stop abortions, and women who have no means or that are poor will suffer from the consequences. They are the ones that will have unsafe abortions if there is no other alternative.

In the U.K., as well, there’s many women who can’t get to an abortion clinic. They might be in an abusive relationship, or they have kids at home, they can’t take time off work, they don’t have money for a babysitter, they are in rural areas or they have to travel a prohibitively long way to get to a clinic.

How can the situation be changed?

Only when abortion is totally decriminalized can all of women’s rights be respected. We are advocating for making the abortion pill available in pharmacies, like Viagra. Viagra is more dangerous to use then the medical abortion pill, much more dangerous, and it’s readily available in pharmacies.

Why is a medical abortion pill not available in pharmacies? Because it’s effecting women and not men. This is about equal rights.

Medical science should determine how a medicine is available and not criminal laws.

Women on Waves in Morocco

How does Women on Waves help women to have an abortion?

Our yacht can carry eight to 10 people, and we have many doctors that participate and a gynecologist who often goes along.

On board, we have a mobile ultrasound and medicines and all the emergency medicines that are needed.

We launch a hotline and announce the service so that women can call and make an appointment. The ship comes into the harbor, the women come aboard, a maximum of five per day, and then we sail out. There is counseling according to Dutch-European standards, and then in international waters, women will take the abortion pill if they still want to.

They then go ashore, and we keep in touch by telephone. They can do a follow up pregnancy test or come to the ship for an ultrasound if they wish.

The pill can be used safely until 10 weeks of pregnancy.

What are the human rights issues relating to the foetus?

Women are risking their health and their life to have a baby. Giving birth is one of the riskiest events in a woman’s life. In the Netherlands, 10,000 women die from giving birth each year. In other countries, the number is much higher.

Of course, most women want to have the pregnancy, and they want to continue it. But, if you look at the right to life and the right to health of the woman when it concerns the pregnancy, her risk is much greater if she continues it. So, her life has precedence over the foetus, because there is no viable foetus until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

If the foetus would be born at that time, it has some chance of survival significant enough for most people to say that this is when the rights of the foetus become important. Then, for example in the U.K. or Netherlands, one cannot choose to have an abortion any more.

Crew detained in Guatemala

Do you receive support or at least acceptance from maritime authorities in the countries you visit?

No. The port state authorities are quite difficult, although they are often being directed by the government. In Portugal, they stopped us from sailing in, and in Guatemala they didn’t let anyone near the ship or let the crew out. The ship was expelled from port for reasons of state security. So, women needing an abortion are an issue of state security?

We’ve had a couple of case where navies have intervened. That says something! Why would the military intervene with something that is only about women, her body, her rights, her health? I think that this shows we are actually talking about fundamental freedoms.

These government interventions are not physical violence, but I feel like they are a form of intimation which is very violent, especially since the crew and the ship hadn’t done anything.

How do you feel about criticism of what you are doing?

We get a lot of very grateful women. That’s what matters to us. That’s the only thing that is at stake. Any other actions and opinions don’t really matter. It’s the women that need help.

Women on Waves in Guatemala

Do you feel safe in international waters?

Yes, because the law of the flag state applies. The whole world functions like this, right? It’s part of what the biggest businesses do. We are doing the same as any company would do when they are going to countries, for example, because they have another banking system or other tax laws.

We use it for human rights issues and health issues for women, so it’s better.

But it’s not a legal vacuum. It’s just different regulations and different laws around the world that we are using to make sure women are safe. There is very clear agreement internationally that, if a ship is in international waters, the law of the ship’s flag applies. The ship is a piece of ground of that country.

It’s not like we have no law, rather we have to comply with the laws of another country.

Thank-you, Dr Gomperts.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


HRAS Interview No.27: Jason Lam ITF Hong Kong – Beyond the Reach of Labor Laws

Beyond the Reach of Labor Laws

China ratified the Maritime Labor Convention last year; Hong Kong is yet to do so. Jason Lam, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Inspector in Hong Kong, talks about the union’s role in wage negotiations, how the MLC is raising conditions for many seafarers and why others are beyond its reach.


What role does the Hong Kong ITF play in seafarer welfare?

Our office often handles cases in mainland China as well as Hong Kong, as the ITF is not present in China other than in Hong Kong. Our main focus is the ITF flag of convenience campaign that aims to protect seafarers working on ships whose flag state does not offer strong legislation to protect them. The union has set up collective bargaining agreements with willing shipping companies to ensure that crews are paid according to our minimum wage scale and provided with decent working conditions on board. We conduct inspections to check on ships entering Hong Kong and handle any complaints from seafarers in the region, regardless of their vessel’s flag.

We have a close relationship with the local port state control in Hong Kong, but as Hong Kong has not ratified the MLC, the port state control cannot do much about seafarer welfare – they are mainly focused on the safety of the vessel.

So, the ITF helps in various ways; we try to negotiate with the owner and local authorities. Therefore, the union acts like a middleman between the worker and the employer. Legal action is usually a last resort if there’s really no chance of a resolution by negotiation. It’s always the last resort, because the crew will need to spend more time and sometimes money. Often the ITF will provide legal assistance, but it is a case by case decision.

We also work with charities such as the Mission to Seafarers. In fact, we often carry out routine inspections together. Each week the Hong Kong ITF randomly chooses to inspect three or four vessels out of the 100 or more that come into the harbour. The charities go to the ship to provide newspapers, medicines etc while we do our inspection. Sometimes, the charities hear about wage problems first and then share the information with us.

Has the MLC had an impact on seafarer welfare?

Nowadays, with the MLC entering into force, conditions on many ships, including flag of convenience ships, are much better than before. The most obvious improvement is in living conditions and rest hours. Management give more consideration to rest hours, because it is a serious deficiency if seafarers have had to work too long. Now, proper record is kept, and this is good for seafarers.

However, the MLC has not been ratified by all flag states. Hong Kong is one of the bigger shipping registries, but they are still to ratify. And many countries, even if they have ratified, have a long way to go to fully implement the MLC. In our experience, even a ship flagged with a state that has ratified can have problems.

How has the prolonged downturn in shipping affected seafarer welfare?

We have had more and more abandonment cases and seafarer complaints about unpaid wages in the last six months. It seems to happen cyclically with the shipping economy. There is no particular pattern with respect to flag or owner. We have cases with Chinese owners, Greek owners and owners in the Middle East.

Even now in China I am handling a case of abandonment. The ship has been in China for quite a long time without the seafarers being paid wages. This owner is from Bahrain. In another ongoing case, the Liberty Prrudentia, the owners are Indian.

Yet another ship, the Banco 1, has been stranded for about six years now – it has a Bahrain owner. They change the crew every year, but the current crew have not been paid for a year or more. The master has been there nearly two years now. A few months ago, the crew asked me to start legal action, and the ITF is assisting with a lawyer in China. Some of the crew want to leave, but they are obliged to stay in order to maintain minimum manning levels on board.

Mostly, the crews stay on board in cases like this, because they believe they still have a chance of getting money from the owner. This is very common. If the seafarers have not been paid for two or three months, they are willing to wait on board until they realize there is no chance. If they leave the vessel, they have nothing.

Usually shipping is a good career, because in many countries, as a seafarer, they earn much more than if they were working ashore. However, if the economy goes down or the company has problems, they can be hurt more, as they are dependent on the owner. They can’t just head home and look for another job – it’s not easy to withdraw their labour.

Seafarers on fishing vessels are not covered by the MLC. Are you still able to help them?

Not so much, but if there is a complaint we will try and help them through legal effort. It’s not that easy, because proceeds from the sale of a fishing vessel are not usually enough to cover legal costs. The fishing vessels in Hong Kong usually have a Taiwanese or Chinese owner, and, in my experience, most of the cases for compensation are closed through negotiation.

I recently handled a complaint about a seafarer from Myanmar working on a fishing vessel owned by a Taiwanese company. The crew had been working on the fishing vessel for over a year and their families hadn’t heard from them and were worried. They made contact with ITF in Myanmar, who then contacted me. I was able to track down the owner, and the company finally sent the seafarers home in May. I received a very happy email from the family saying they had met their brother at the airport.

We’ve also had some recent cases of seafarers from Vietnam and Myanmar who were told they were going to work on a large cargo vessel. There was no mention of a fishing vessel, but they ended up on a small boat catching squid off Africa. Usually these scenarios involve very low wages, about $200 or $300 per month, and the living conditions are very bad. The master is usually Chinese or Taiwanese and the crew are from Myanmar, so communication is not good.

We received a complaint about a lack of provisions on board another fishing vessel recently. The wages were not paid on time either. We tried to contact the company to make sure the seafarers were at least paid what their contract stated. This type of vessel does not have ITF collective bargaining agreements, so we cannot ask for more.

When has legal action been successful?

In June last year, after being stuck on board, unpaid, for eight months in the middle of Hong Kong harbor, the crew of the casino ship New Imperial Star headed home, thanks to legal action undertaken with the assistance of the ITF.

The crew of 46 are owed $564,000 in back pay and compensation. The case is currently before the High Court of Hong Kong, and it is anticipated that the court will release their wages after selling the ship. The ITF and the Merchant Navy Officers’ Guild-Hong Kong funded an advance on their wages and paid for their tickets home.

The case is a success story for us. The legislation in Hong Kong is actually better than in a lot of other countries. We hope to achieve a similar outcome for the crew of the Liberty Prrudentia. This vessel is at anchor in Zhoushan in northern China, and the crew have gone unpaid since November 2016. They have had limited supplies of food and water, and the owner is bankrupt. The Indian embassy have been informed and have arranged visa extension for the crew while we help them make a legal claim.

What are the challenges for seafarers looking for help?

If everything worked perfectly, there would not be a need for a union. Our role then is if the authorities or owners don’t respond, seafarers will contact us. They find that the union is closer to them, and, in our area, we know better than they do how to contact local authorities. Sometimes they are not aware of legislation that could help them, and often they don’t know how to contact their own embassy. That was the case with the crew of the Liberty Prrudentia, so we contacted the Indian embassy in Shanghai and asked them to help.

Do you believe that Human Rights at Sea has been helpful?

The case of the Liberty Prrudentia is my first experience of cooperating with Human Rights at Sea. Both Mission to Seafarers and Human Rights at Sea are quite important for protecting seafarers’ rights. If a seafarer has a problem at sea, there is no support, and they need to find a solution by all means they can – the union, charities and the authorities. I think the more options they have, the easier it will be for them to get the information they need to protect their rights.

Thank you, Jason.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:



HRAS Interview No.25: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

HRAS Interview: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

Thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos cross the border into Thailand each year. They trade poverty at home for the possibility of relative prosperity abroad. A Thai proverb – escaping from the tiger, then meeting the crocodile – describes the fate of many.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Phil Robertson, on the ground in Thailand for Human Rights Watch, about the pattern of abuse for those forced into slavery in the fishing industry.

Migrant workers coming into Thailand face being debt-bonded in order to get work. What makes them vulnerable to this human rights abuse?

Sometimes they choose to go because they want to support family members back home. Sometimes there’s a sense of adventure. Sometimes it’s out of desperation.

The people coming from Myanmar are from rural families and are often very poor. They have little to no access to cash income. Brokers are offering pay packets that, if these people knew what the situation was in Thailand, they’d recognize as totally unrealistic, but they don’t.

Less than a year ago, we prepared a report about land seizures and human rights abuses in Karen state in Myanmar, which borders Thailand. What we found was land seizures by military groups and local officials, well-connected people. They are literally showing up with land ownership documents issued by local authorities and putting people off land that they have worked on as farmers for generations. When the farmers protest, they get arrested.

The farmers either end up working as day laborers for a pittance or living with relatives, with some of the family members being sent to Thailand to find work and send back money. We interviewed people, actually the children of those that had lost land. They were scratching out a living, barely, by recycling other people’s trash. There’s a lot of familial obligation to provide money to the parents, and so they hear an offer to go down to Bangkok where they’ll receive a much higher salary, and they see the positive aspects of it, they don’t necessarily see the risks.

These are the realities of the migrant universe in Thailand that the authorities are not really touching yet with the reforms that have been implemented so far.

How are workers debt-bonded?

Take for instance a worker on the Thai/Myanmar border working at a local construction site. The recruiter says, “Hey, you can do a lot better than that. Come to Bangkok, I can find you a job: pay you 7000 or 8000 Thai baht a month. You don’t need to pay me any money now, but down there, I’ll arrange the job for you, and I will recoup whatever my costs are for arranging that and moving you down. There’ll be a couple months of deductions, and you’ll be all set. You’ll get a job, and you’ll be in a much better place than you are now.”

And that construction worker says “Well, geez, that sounds really good. What do I need to do?”

How are they then brought across the border into Thailand?

Usually they start with a long walk. Crossing the border is fairly easy, but then the broker will take them one or two days traversing through the jungle to avoid border checkpoints. Then they get to a pre-arranged meeting place where they’re picked up by a truck, usually being driven by either a policeman or the relative of an official who won’t get stopped by police on the way to Bangkok. They are hidden in the back of the vehicle, sometimes packed in like sardines.

Usually there is a mix of people who are going. The truck stops in various different places and drops off workers at different workplaces. For those sent by brokers working for fishing fleets, they end up in a port. They’re poor. They get out of the truck, and they’re surrounded by toughs. They don’t know where they are, they don’t speak the Thai language, they have no documents. There’s really no other options. They just have to get on that boat.

We see that kind of deceptive recruitment connected to brokers, and the way they move people into this country, time and time and time again.

What is Human Rights Watch’s approach to combatting these human rights abuses?

Our focus at Human Rights Watch is pretty much always the same. We investigate. We expose the abuses that we have found after rigorous documentation. Then we work on a change strategy, an advocacy strategy based on our assessment of where the problems are and what needs to happen to solve them.

Sometimes we’ll make recommendations to governments; sometimes to private companies; sometimes to international organizations. It really depends on our assessment of the situation and who the rights abusers are and where the pressure points are to try to stop them.

What is Thailand doing about the problems?

The Thai authorities are doing very little to combat the pattern of debt bondage and foreign worker exploitation. They have decided that the manpower agencies and brokers that bring workers into the country should be regulated. That’s all well and good, but there’s an entire sort of subterranean way of coming into the country that the authorities are not even getting close to touching yet. That whole group of people, that whole network, operates on the “travel now, pay later” system. And far too often, the “pay later” part of that equation involves persons held in what amounts to slavery.

What needs to be done?

The first problem is that there’s no good avenue for the migrant workers to effectively complain about what’s happening to them to officials that is disconnected from those who are taking advantage of them. The situation really calls for an ombudsman with effective powers to investigate, operating with the resources and interpreters to go down to the ground, to really understand the kind of abuses that are taking place and take concrete action.

Our research has shown that when migrant workers are faced with employment problems and complain, whether they go to the local ministry of labor office or their employer, they face immediate retaliation. That keeps them in a state of fear. Facing a difficult situation, facing human rights abuses, they do what any ordinary person with little power would do. They try to escape, to run away. The last thing they want to do is complain.

Ultimately we need to delink migrant worker registration and status from employers. Migrant workers should receive, let’s say, registration directly with the Thai government for four years. They can then take their registration ID card and work wherever they want for as long as they want, and if they don’t like it at that workplace, then they can resign and leave the next day like any other person can, and go find another job.

Do labour source nations, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, have any control over the situation?

What we see in Myanmar, and it’s the same in many different countries around the world, is a lot of corruption in the recruitment process. The manpower companies are being run to earn maximum profit for their owners through very high recruitment fees, and often times the people who own these businesses are relatives of senior officials or relatives of the police – the sort of governing riff-raff that take advantage of connections to take advantage of people trying to seek a better life.

The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, and Population in Myanmar has done a very poor job of effectively regulating recruitment. And it’s not just Myanmar. You can see the same thing in Cambodia. You can see the same thing in Vietnam. In Vietnam, many of these manpower agencies are connected directly to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs.

Bribes are paid at all levels in these labour recruitment operations. Ultimately, the cost of all those illicit payments ends up on the final bill of the worker who’s going overseas. In some cases, workers have paid thousands of dollars to take a job where they are going to be cheated and exploited.

Is anything happening at a regional level?

The region has done very little to protect the rights of migrant workers or look out for their better interests despite the fact that so many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are dependent on the remittances sent back by migrant workers for the success of their economies.

ASEAN needs an instrument to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers. Currently, there’s a fundamental regulatory failure when looking at the issue of protection of migrant workers and worker rights.

What role do you see the media playing?

I think that media exposés are absolutely critical to make progress on how can we protect the rights of workers in these countries. Those done by The New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, the Guardian and others are excellent. They need to keep coming.

There needs to be more investigative journalism. That’s the real challenge, I think for countries like Australia and the U.S., Canada and Europe that are receiving imports of food and other products. They owe an obligation to the consumers of those products to say where the products are really coming from and under what conditions they’re being produced.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2010: From the Tiger to the Crocodile Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand. Phil is now working on another report due to be published later this year focusing particularly on Thailand’s seafood industry. Human Rights at Sea looks forward to its publication. Thank-you, Phil.

Link to 2010 report: 


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


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.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


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.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:








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.


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

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.

The HRAS Interview: Wendy Betts eyeWitness Project Director

Wendy BettsEmpowering Eye Witnesses

It is now possible for people who witness crimes and human rights abuse at sea to use the eyeWitness to Atrocities app to capture evidence.

Developed by the International Bar Association, the app, through its unique capabilities, enables Android smartphones and tablets to be used to document crimes – such as murder, armed robbery, human trafficking, piracy and drug smuggling – in a way that is admissible as evidence in a court of law.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to eyeWitness Project Director, Wendy Betts, about the system and the protection of those who use it.

HRAS: Wendy, you have 20 years’ experience in international development, law reform and transitional justice. You have managed projects in Eastern Europe, Sierra Leone, Indonesia and Haiti. What motivated you to now take the lead on eyeWitness?

I am motivated by the opportunities I have had to meet and speak with many individuals living and working under incredibly challenging and, often, life threatening, conditions.
Their dedication and sacrifice in reporting on the violations they are experiencing inspire me, and all of us at eyeWitness, to support their efforts by amplifying their voices.

HRAS: What are the challenges to using citizen captured footage as legal evidence? Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Wendy Betts eyeWitness Project Director

The HRAS Interview: Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Mauricio LazalaBusiness and Human Rights: Is the cup half full or half empty?

Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director of the world’s largest NGO working exclusively on business and human rights issues, has seen an amazing take-up of human rights issues amongst multi-national corporations over the last 10 years, but the NGO still reports abuses on a daily basis. He spoke to HRAS about how seriously business is taking the issues and how the work of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is helping

HRAS: Mauricio, at a recent United Nations Human Rights forum in Geneva, you met with hundreds of representatives from business who were also attending. How have times changed?

In the last 10 years we have seen a very rapid increase in the uptake of human rights issues by companies around the world. Ten-fifteen years ago, no major corporations were talking the human rights talk or having human rights units within their organisation looking seriously at the issues. Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

The HRAS Interview: Dr Patricia Kailola, CEO of Pacific Dialogue, Fiji

patriciaTuna: Caught by Slaves and Canned by Slaves

Welcoming and warm-hearted, Fijians and other Pacific Islanders can be lured into the dark side of commercial tuna fishing. “Would you buy a can of tuna that you knew had been caught by slaves and canned by slaves?” asks Dr Patricia Kailola, CEO of Fiji-based NGO Pacific Dialogue Ltd.

HRAS spoke to Patricia to find out about the often-unreported abuses occurring on fishing vessels in the Pacific Ocean.


HRAS: What is happening to the Pacific islanders that are being exploited in the commercial tuna fishing industry?

Many of the problems we see mimic those reported in other fisheries, such as the South-east Asian long-haul fishery. Trickery, illegal contracts and debt bondage (where crew members are obliged to “pay off” the cost of their travel and papers) and non-payment of wages, are common.

On board, the men can be expected to work 18 hours or more a day. They may face beatings for not understanding instructions and monetary penalties for “transgressions” or for not following instructions to the satisfaction of ship officers.

Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Dr Patricia Kailola, CEO of Pacific Dialogue, Fiji