Mercy at Sea in a Post-Pandemic World: The Story of a Migrant Fisher

Tashryn Mohd Shahrin and Euan Chan
Independent Researchers


Have you heard the story of a migrant fisher? 

He is promised a handsome amount of money, the chance to see the world, and an exciting time at sea. He will be able to afford the life he imagined for himself and his family at home. He will return, a proud man. 

Is this truly the case?

“When I arrived in Taiwan, I was directly brought to the vessel berthed at port. The next day we sailed. Work conditions such as food, working hours, social insurance, among others were not as promised by the manning agency in Indonesia. We were promised salaries that will be paid cumulatively every three months, but that did not happen. The reality was different from my expectations before deciding to board the ship.” 

- Mr. C, a former crew on Chin Chun No.12


“If there is a strong storm, it doesn’t matter, the crew have to keep working. Even though many people fall, or someone has a bleeding arm hit by a fishing rod, we have to keep working.” 

- Mr. H, a crew member on Fu Yuan Yu 056

Seabound 2.0

These personal accounts are shared by many who have had similar experiences, some even worse. It is worth bearing in mind that allegations mentioned in reports and research are not indicative of the depth and extent of modern slavery at sea, with many violations still undisclosed. 

The Archetype of the Migrant Fisher

In 2021, COVID-19 continued unabated around the world, as did the work of migrant fishers on board distant water fishing (DWF) vessels in the high seas. Reports by many organizations point to mounting evidence of forced labour practices and slavery-like conditions of workers often citing excessive working hours, poor living conditions, and occupational dangers as reasons for their suffering. The physical and mental abuse that workers endure starts at the beginning of their migration journeys – at home, in countries of origin. Exploitative recruitment agencies or intermediary actors prey on workers who lack education, information and capacity to protect themselves, luring them with promises of travel and higher wages which in many cases never materialise. These workers are strong-armed into signing contractual agreements with many legal loopholes, leaving them exposed to vulnerabilities such as debt bondage, wage theft, and other grievances. With no means or access to escape their ordeals, migrant fishers, whose identity documents are usually withheld from them, are ‘held captive’ at sea at the mercy of their captains for months - sometimes years - at a time. 

Many of these conditions that migrant fishers face are shared by migrant workers alike. They are the result of underlying causes, made more acute by the COVID-19 pandemic. By investigating why the pandemic drove migrant workers into further vulnerability, we can not only gain insights into the best practices and systems that can be put into place to mitigate the vulnerabilities faced by those at risk of exploitation, but can also use this information to prepare for when the next pandemic strikes.

How COVID-19 Propels Exploitation and Exacerbates Vulnerabilities

Factors such as poverty increase susceptibility  to exploitation, and crisis events can further exacerbate susceptibility  through threatening people’s livelihoods. COVID-19 exacerbated pre-pandemic vulnerabilities of those mostly in poverty  through a variety of effects, such as the closure of workplaces and hampered support mechanisms

Reduction in business led to job losses and lower wages for many workers, causing severe insecurity. COVID-19 measures such as fishing bans, restrictions on travel and port access caused many vessels to be stranded with reduced monitoring onboard during the peak pandemic period, resulting in stranded workers who suffered mental exhaustion and an increased likelihood of being exploited at sea. Their hardships extended to their families and communities that live hand-to-mouth and depend on them for their livelihoods and survival. Being made vulnerable by language barriers, uncertain legal status, and xenophobic environments, the local discriminatory government policies excluding migrant workers, diminished healthcare and legal support, limited access to information, and translation services for migrants further worsened their position.

Next Steps for a Better “Normal”

As countries begin recalibrating for the immediate future, we need to make sure that the pandemic is studied for both its failures and successes to better prepare for the next one. The pandemic highlighted the need for improved business compliance standards for employers of migrant workers (including fishers) to be created, maintained and enforced globally, as current regulations for fishing vessels differ across countries. Additionally, compliance must be enforced on employers for only hiring documented migrant workers to lessen the risk of exploitation, and enrolling them in social contribution funds which provide security in the event of a crisis.

Government support must include migrant workers’ access to social security and healthcare. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) can play a critical role by providing migrant workers with linguistically, culturally, and technologically inclusive channels that disseminate and provide information on support and counseling regardless of legal status. Independence from national authorities can then allow for undocumented migrant workers to be referred to support services without fear of engaging with officials. These mechanisms should be established prior to crises rather than during them, to avoid uncertainties that can exacerbate migrant workers’ vulnerabilities.

Change and Policy Reform are Long Overdue

Although it can be hard to imagine the plight of migrant fishers, we as regular consumers of seafood products especially, have a responsibility to demand information about where and how our seafood is caught. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the seafood we eat is not the product of illegal fishing or human rights abuses unless there is full supply chain traceability for all seafood. 

At the core of the issue, we need fair labour laws that regulate the hiring, payment and treatment of fishing crews alongside accountability and transparency in fisheries management that prohibit forced labour and human trafficking. These standards must be enforced both by governments and corporations with twenty-first century tools, technology and robust legislation that will verify that the seafood on our plates is legally caught, sustainable and honestly labelled. Pandemic or not, our migrant fishers deserve better. 

This article was first published for Routed Magazine.