The Future

Cheap Seafood | The Social Cost of Production

Many workers employed onboard offshore fishing vessels have been subjected to unsafe working conditions, unfair wages, subpar living conditions and both physical and psychological abuse. While this issue exists around the world, it is particularly rampant in Southeast Asia, a region that owes much of its recent prosperity to its ability to provide cheap seafood through its fisheries. Here is the cost of cheap seafood that you don’t see.

An important cultural and traditional occupation in many parts of the world, marine capture fisheries (aka. wild fisheries) are the primary source of livelihood for close to 40 million people.1 Of these, around 85% live in Asia, where growing fisheries exports have brought about significant economic growth over the past years.2 But while the growth in global seafood consumption over recent decades has been good for the growth of the industry and local economies, the pressure on fishing communities and suppliers to meet this demand has only compounded. The result is a surge in demand for cheap seafood, especially from wealthy importing countries that have pushed several Asian fisheries to sell at rock-bottom prices and rely on illegal practices to remain competitive within international markets.3  Meeting these low prices comes with a hefty human cost.

What makes workers vulnerable to exploitation? 

Depleting fish stocks

A large number of commercially valuable wild fish stocks are currently depleted or in poor health following years of inefficient fisheries management combined with the impacts of climate change.4, 5 With greater demand for seafood and depleted supply, fishing vessels are often forced to undertake longer trips and travel further into the sea for the catch that once came easy to make a profit. These trips require more fuel, labour, and increased vessel capacity to handle offshore conditions. Since fuel and infrastructure expenses are generally non-negotiable, many fishing companies try to keep their costs low by underpaying workers or exploiting desperate workers willing to work for unfairly low wages.3

Read how fishing quotas can help stabilise fish stocks.


Asian countries with successful fisheries operations, like South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, often attract migrant workers from poorer neighbouring countries in large numbers. Migrant workers are recruited to work aboard fishing vessels through brokers or middlemen who are known to mislead them about wages and working conditions.3 Desperately in need of a job, workers often end up signing contracts in languages they do not understand without enquiring about issues like rest hours or deductions. 

Laws in the employing countries often extend fewer rights and social protection to these workers. For instance, Thailand does not allow migrant workers to form or hold leadership positions in labour unions.6 Such restrictions leave migrant workers without a platform to voice their grievances or to gain compensation for their mistreatment.

Lack of visibility

Fishers have often been described as a hidden workforce. Operating remotely at sea and constantly moving, fishing vessels often go unnoticed by law enforcement and fisheries management authorities for extended periods of time before returning to port.3 With some government subsidies also allowing fishers to buy vessels at a reduced price, there are now more boats than ever to keep track of, with over 4.6 million vessels currently operating in our oceans - a twofold increase in the number of fishing vessels in our seas since 1950.7

Once away from the mainland, workers’ ability to freely communicate with the outside world can be removed by ship captains, and they cannot request authorities to intervene in case of exploitation or even escape. Instances of workers being forced to work for reduced wages as well as being subjected to abuse have been recorded by several human rights groups and media outlets.3, 8 In 2015, the plight of such workers made headlines when the Indonesian government rescued more than 2000 fishermen, mostly migrant workers, being held captive against their will.9 The fishermen were reported to have endured severe torture, including being whipped with stingray tails and given electric shocks.10 While these incidents are perhaps more common in Asia, they aren’t restricted to the region. Recent studies have also reported cases of labour abuse aboard fishing boats from the UK and Ireland.3

‘Trans-shipment’ of fish

Ideally, fishing vessels return to the port after storage space has been used up and the fish needs to be landed. However, to keep workers at sea for longer and avoid inspections, some fishing companies resort to the ‘trans-shipment’ of their catch.3 This involves transferring the catch from the fishing vessels to refrigerated cargo ships at sea that bring the fish back while workers must remain at sea for extended periods. Trans-shipment vessels also supply fishing vessels with fuel to enable them to stay at sea and keep fishing for longer.3 Such vessels are also known to employ trafficked workers who are forced to work in conditions that can be described as modern slavery.  

Why is it difficult to put an end to the abuse?

Lack of investment & resources 

Despite the existence of relevant domestic and international legal mechanisms to regulate poor practice in seafood supply chains, several governments have failed to address human rights issues in the fisheries sector. Ending human rights abuses at sea is complex and requires systemic change, which in turn demands considerable investment in research, training, surveillance, and enforcement.3 In most lower-income countries where these issues are rampant, government and local authorities simply cannot afford to allocate the required resources.3 And given that nearly half of the world’s marine capture produce comes from lower-income countries, costs are a major limiting factor in addressing these systemic issues.1

Consumer demand for cheaper seafood

To meet the rising demand from consumers in wealthier regions, retailers seek to import seafood at the lowest possible prices. With their sourcing policies often excluding primary producers, importers and international retailers seem to either be unaware of or choose to willfully ignore the social cost of these low prices.3 Public legislation in importing countries often fails to enforce stricter laws regarding procurement policies as well - leaving legal loopholes for producers, importers and retailers to exploit cheaper products that employ questionable ethical practices.4 


Corruption perpetuates human rights abuse in many ways. Port officials, law enforcement officers, and civil servants have been known to accept bribes in exchange for overlooking irregularities, facilitating human trafficking, helping avoid inspections, and circumventing prosecution or penalties.11,12 Corruption and resultant illegal and unregulated fishing, have also been found to be more rampant in countries with political instability and inadequate governance structures.3

Lack of safety at sea

Acting to support human rights at sea is known to be a risky task. This is especially true in the case of ‘observers’ who are trained specialists employed either by government agencies or independent third parties to remain on a selected vessel and examine the catch and working conditions onboard during their journey to sea. Instances of observers being forcibly confined to their quarters, intimidated into falsifying reports, bribed, and even murdered to avoid the public sharing of mispractice at sea have all been documented.3 

What is the European Union doing about it?

The European Union is the world's largest seafood importer, accounting for 20-25% of the global seafood market.3,13 Because of this commanding position within the industry, the EU has the power to act as a key driver for better industry practices. In 2008, this market muscle was flexed as the European Commission issued a carding system, wherein countries that were determined to be performing poorly with regard to controlling illegal and unregulated fishing in their waters would receive a warning or a ‘yellow card’. 

If a yellow-carded country fails to make any changes, it is issued a ‘red card’ and consequently banned from exporting fish to the EU.14 The same system also mandates catch certificates for all seafood imported into the region.14 These certificates provide information about how the fish was harvested and need to be approved by a competent authority from the exporting country.14 Although these measures have resulted in some improvement such as improved traceability in international fish trade and close monitoring of fishing activity, they rely solely on financial sanctions and therefore cannot eradicate labour issues in marine capture fisheries alone.15

More needs to be done

If tangible changes are to happen in a globalised seafood market, businesses must actively implement a zero-tolerance policy towards human rights abuses within seafood supply chains. This would mean, among other things, improving transparency with regard to procurement, employing third-party organisations to carry out social audits, and training employees to identify and report abuse and corruption. Consumers can also play a role by exercising their collective buying power by demanding that retailers guarantee that the fish they sell is traceable and fairly procured. 

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  1. “Blood and Water: Human Rights Abuses in the Global Seafood Industry”. Environmental Justice Foundations. Accessed 18 October 2021.
  2. “Caught at Sea: Forced Labour and Trafficking in Fisheries”. International Labour Office. Accessed17 October.
  3. “Impact of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed 16 February 2022.
  4. “Time for a Sea Change: Why union rights for migrant workers are needed to prevent forced labor in the Thai seafood industry”. International Labor Rights Forum. Accessed 20 October 2021.
  5. “Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed 16 February 2022.
  6. Lewis et. al. (2017). “Human Rights and the Sustainability of Fisheries”.
  7. “Five jailed in seafood slavery case”. The Guardian. Accessed 16 February 2022.
  8. “Indonesia is rescuing hundreds of enslaved fishermen from a remote island”. Business Insider. Accessed 10 November 2021.
  9. Yan & Graycar (2020). “Exploring Corruption in Fisheries”.
  10. “Fisheries”. Curbing Corruption. Accessed 16 February 2022.
  11. “World Seafood Map 2019: Value Growth in the Global Seafood Trade Continues”. RaboResearch. Accessed 17 October 2021.
  12. Council Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 of 29 September 2008 establishing a community system to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
  13. Leroy, Galletti & Chaboud (2016). The EU restrictive trade measures against IUU fishing.
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