Slavery. It sounds archaic.
Sadly, slavery is not a thing of the past. According to the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, an estimated 50 million people are currently trapped in modern slavery situations, including forced labour and forced marriage. This now equates to 1 in every 150 people and is an increase of 10 million people since the last report was published in 2017, with women, children, unprotected migrant workers, and those already in vulnerable situations being the most affected.
Modern slavery encompasses any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour and is a lucrative practice; it is the world's third most profitable crime. The damning report documents that damage wrought by the pandemic and international conflict, such as in Ukraine, has vastly increased vulnerability to exploitation and the number of potential trafficking victims.
The risk of modern slavery in the global shipping industry is particularly susceptible and occurs because of a variety of factors.
Seafarers are sometimes from countries with inadequate records and ineffective policing concerning abuses of human rights, labour rights and related corruption activities. The unique feature of flag state structures also creates a fragmented system of regulatory negligence and can restrict the effective enforcement of decent working conditions on board vessels.
Since 2006 under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), the promise of decent work conditions, accommodation, food, and medical care, among other standards, has been in force. However, the nature of the job means that seafarers face isolated working conditions and often depend on their employers for access to communication with the outside world, often making seafarers vulnerable to exploitation.
The report developed by International Labour Organisation (ILO), Walk Free and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) proposes several recommended measures, including improving and enforcing laws and labour inspections and ending state-imposed forced labour. As well as more robust measures to combat forced labour and trafficking in business and supply chains, developing social protection, and addressing the increased risk of trafficking forced labour for migrant workers.
Recently in the UK, the International Defence and Relations Committee Inquiry into the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 being 'Fit for Purpose in the 21st Century' highlighted state failures in relation to current human rights protections at sea.
The House of Lords received a weak UK Government response after specifically highlighting several matters relating to human rights at sea, including urging the Government to set out its obligations concerning human rights at sea, including human trafficking and modern slavery.
The Government failed to support the position that 'human rights apply at sea, as they do on land'. Instead, it remarked, "The Government accepts that internationally the applicable jurisdiction for victims of human rights abuses at sea may be difficult to ascertain. There is scope to clarify where victims may bring a complaint or case in the UK."
In short, this dodges many of the core human rights questions raised by the UK's Upper House.
Modern slavery is a heinous crime that often rips individuals from their families, trapping victims in a cycle of abuse at the hands of employers empowered by impunity. It has no place in the 21st century.
Human Rights at Sea will continue to work alongside other civil society organisations, state authorities, UN agencies and commercial interests to advocate for ending modern slavery in the maritime environment.
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