Trafficking in the maritime world

The maritime world is a globalized one. Commercial shipping transports 90% of the goods produced in the world by loading it on thousands of vessels that criss-cross every possible ocean, sea or river.

These vessels are managed by a workforce of 1.2 million seafarers of all races, nationalities and religions. In 2010, the fisheries sector (including aquaculture) provided livelihoods and income for an estimated 54.8 million people, with an estimated number of about 4.36 million fishing vessels (according to FAO statistics).
The maritime industry is governed by a system, called the Flag of Convenience (FOC), which makes it very difficult to clearly identify who is the real owner, because of the number of interested parties involved (charterers, manning agencies, insurers and owners of the cargo, and so forth). Work in the maritime sector is often characterized by inadequate salaries, difficult work conditions, violation of human and labour rights, forced labour and trafficking.


A large number of people employed as seafarers or fishers are vulnerable and potential victims of trafficking. This is because their work makes them invisible to the society where they come from, and they are not known in the foreign ports where the vessel arrives.
In Thailand a number of migrants from Myanmar reported that they were forced to work on fishing boats for as long as 18 to 20 hours per day, seven days a week. They were physically and verbally abused, given very little or inedible food, and were not paid at all or paid a meagre amount of money, contrary to what they had been promised. Many of the trafficked fishermen allegedly witnessed the killing of their fellow fishermen by the boat captains and were threatened with death if they did not work hard.


Furthermore, they complained of lack of access to medical services on the boats, and those who fell ill were either beaten so that they would continue working or left to die and thrown overboard. As one trafficked fisherman stated, they were treated as ‘reusable merchandise rather than as human beings’.

Fishing sector

The problem of trafficking for forced labour is more pronounced in the fishing sector. This is true for a number of reasons. Among them, fishing vessels can stay out at sea for long periods of time (from a few months to several years), and the exploited crews of these fishing vessels find it difficult, if not impossible, to report their predicaments.
Many internal/transnational migrants are more easily subjected to trafficking for forced labour into the fishing industry because they generally come from poor and undeveloped areas of the countries; they have received very little education or not at all; or they are unaware of the working conditions on board fishing vessels.


The strongest push factors are extreme poverty and unemployment in their countries of origin. These people easily fall prey of brokers and/or members of organized crime who, by promising a job and a good salary, transport them across borders of nations to board fishing vessels in the middle of the sea. These people, without any personal documents, find themselves in an irregular situation because they entered a country illegally; they are often afraid to seek help from the local authorities because these themselves are corrupted and often conspire with the traffickers.


Though trafficking for forced labour in the fishing sector, as previously mentioned, is not limited only to developing countries (such as in Southeast Asia, Africa, for example, 74 Indonesian fishers victims of trafficking and stranded in Cape Town, children in Ghana employed in fishing in Lake Victoria), but is present and documented also in countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand and Latin America.


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