12 April 2021
London. UK. As The Guardian’s reporter, George Monboit headlined in his April 7th article review of the new Netflix Seaspiracy documentary. ‘The film gets some things wrong, but it exposes the grim ecological destruction of the Earth’s oceans‘. As important as ocean conservation is for the future of humanity, so is the fact that Seaspiracy raises crucial points about human rights abuses at sea.
While the controversial offering by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi has marine scientists, fish producers, fish sustainability programmes and members of the global fishing sector, including fishers, up in arms about its alleged facts and claims, there is one section which shines a much-needed light on the dark underbelly of worker recruitment, employment and systemic fundamental rights abuse in an environment which is invariably out of sight and out of mind.
Ever since 2014 and international exposés about slavery, trafficking and human exploitation of workers at sea in the likes of Thai, Taiwanese and New Zealand fleets, there has been increasing public focus on exposing abuse at sea, employer malpractice and exploitation of workers being tricked into work which amounts to slavery at sea.
Concurrently, there has been a concerted effort by civil society NGOs to expose slavery issues in Thailand, expose distant water fisheries labour abuses involving Taiwanese vessels, address worker voice and access to justice, and to co-ordinate and align through voluntary homogenised action hubs such as the Seafood Working Group (SWG) convened by Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), among other such international groupings.
The SWG, which for transparency Human Rights at Sea is a member, has been an instrumental civil society platform for challenges to state-level failures in Central and S.E Asia through the likes of its annual submissions to the influential US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
This kind of advocacy activism nonetheless requires continual assessment of the available facts and evidence but which are often scarce due to lack of transparency, disclosure and low-levels of accountability not just at a corporate level, but also from coastal states who license vessels for fishing activity, and flag states who enable vessels to legally operate at sea.
What Seaspiracy also alludes to is the corporate social responsibility gloss which is pervasive throughout the global fisheries sector.
While Human Rights at Sea makes no comment on the sustainability and scientific claims made in the documentary, it is clear that its brief focus on the often fatal consequences, exploitation and the genuine fear of victims is an essential step forward and a step-up for increased global awareness of human rights abuses at sea.
This kind of illuminating discussion and highlighting of the consequences for real-time victims must continue to avoid the inevitable white / green / blue-washing which facilitates the alternative narrative that ‘all is well for workers at sea’.
As commentators, such as Liz Allen in her Apr 10th article ‘Seaspiracy: A Call To Action Or A Vehicle Of Misinformation?‘ for Forbes resolutely challenges the accuracy of the documentary’s offerings and Greenpeace opines against the global solutions to problems raised by Seaspiracy, one issue remains crystal clear.
The international community and global public unapologetically need to hear more about the murders, rapes, slavery, trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, abandonment and numerous other human and labour rights abuses occurring every day at sea; not for any macabre sensationalist social media feeding-frenzy, but to ensure that the worker exploitation narrative remains balanced and real.