History of the Risk Tool 

After high-profile reports from the Associated PressThe Guardian, and The New York Times raised public awareness about human rights abuses in seafood, it became evident that publicly available resources to help identify the risks in supply chains weren’t available. At the request of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program’s and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership’s business partners, the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool was developed to give the seafood and financial industries credible information about the likelihood that forced labor, human trafficking, or hazardous child labor are occurring on fishing boats in a specific fishery. The Risk Tool’s partnership also aims to contribute to the realization of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, notably Goal 8 (Target 8.7) and Goal 14

Causes of Forced Labor, Human Trafficking, and Child Labor 

The causes of forced labor, human trafficking, and hazardous child labor can vary by region and community. There are, however, several common characteristics of those who are vulnerable to exploitation in the world of work. There also can be “push factors” at play that push people into exploitation and “pull factors” that create the demand for cheap, exploitable laborers.


Poverty often is cited as the number one cause, but poverty means different things in different contexts. While income poverty – the inability to earn enough to make ends meet – may indeed be a vulnerability factor, other dimensions of poverty also can make people susceptible to forced labor, human trafficking, and hazardous child labor. These include food insecurity, a lack of access to social services (e.g., social protection, health, and education), and exposure to economic shock. A family or an individual may be surviving today, but if struck by an economic shock (e.g., unemployment, injury or death of a breadwinner, or a natural disaster that destroys crops or other means of livelihood), child labor may become a family survival strategy and family members may be vulnerable to forced labor and human trafficking due to the lack of alternatives.
An often-overlooked dimension of poverty is limited access to reliable information, which increases the risk of becoming a victim of forced labor or human trafficking. If a person has limited access to information about workers’ rights and reliable labor market resources, it becomes more difficult to distinguish a genuine offer from a deceptive one. 

Cultural beliefs and traditions can underpin exploitation. For example, a belief that girls are worth less than boys could prevent girls from attending school because it’s thought that school is wasted on them. Views that boys must become breadwinners at an early age could force them to work rather than attend school. Mindsets that certain ethnic groups or social classes are destined for occupations that are considered demeaning by majority populations perpetuate their suppression and vulnerability to forced labor, human trafficking, and hazardous child labor. 

Ethnicity is a substantial risk factor in many parts of the world. This especially is true when ethnicity and poverty interplay and ethnic minorities face discrimination on multiple fronts such as access to social services, housing, or certain occupations. Ethnicity, class, or caste also can perpetuate traditional forms of slavery such as bonded labor (not necessarily debt bonding) and ritual servitude.

Migrant workers, especially unregistered and irregular migrants, are more vulnerable to forced labor, human trafficking, and hazardous child labor. Irregular migration easily can descend into forced labor and human trafficking. For example, migrants may incur debt as part of the migration process, resulting in debt bondage that increases their vulnerability to abuse.  

Refugee populations and IDPs are at increased risk in many parts of the world. Refugees and IDPs often have limited options and may rely on people smugglers who take advantage of their vulnerability. They typically are in unfamiliar circumstances where interpreting offers and demands from other people is challenging. It can be difficult to determine if an employment offer is genuine if one does not fully understand the language spoken. Within refugee and IDP populations, children and young people are particularly vulnerable, especially if they are unaccompanied by adult family members. 



Labor-intensive industries and occupations where productivity and profits are low and labor is the most variable cost can be associated with forced labor, human trafficking, and hazardous child labor. In the fishing industry, it has been documented how overfishing in some waters has led to decreasing catch and profits. As other costs like fuel are fixed, boat owners resort to exploiting their workers in a bid to drive down costs. The risk of human rights abuse may be especially pronounced in “4D” occupations that are considered dirty, dangerous, difficult, and demeaning. Employers may find it hard to recruit workers, especially if they are unable or unwilling pay workers well and provide very attractive employment conditions. Fishing is often categorized as a 4D job. Moreover, these drivers may be worse in countries and industries where workers (and employers) are poorly or not organized and therefore unable to negotiate agreements on terms and conditions. Indeed, some countries ban the organization of all or groups of workers such as migrant workers. 

Cultural expectations and social beliefs that justify the use of child labor and/or forced labor can play an important role in rationalizing these practices. For example, a ship’s captain who thinks, “My workers are better off with me than if they had no work at all.” Moreover, such narratives can contribute to creating an environment where public beliefs and attitudes don’t clearly dismiss slavery-like practices, and the reputational and social risks of being a perpetrator are limited. 

Governance and enforcement of legislation in a country plays a part as well. If the risk of detection and punishment is low, the chance of some employers using forced or child labor increases. Forced labor and human trafficking often interplay with other criminal activity such as illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, tax evasion, smuggling, etc. There is a direct correlation, in many cases, between the level of corruption and criminal activities in a country and the extent and quality of law enforcement. 

Use of Recruitment Agents 

The use of recruitment agents, sometimes known as labor brokers, may increase the risk of human trafficking and forced labor. Recruitment agents often are associated with exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers. For example, recruitment agents level debt on workers for payment of (non-transparent) fees for transport, lodging, and so on. The accumulation of fees can lead to workers ending up in dept bonding. The risk of debt bonding is particularly high when unregistered agents, which are not subject to government control, are used. However, cases where fishermen have ended up in debt bonding through legally registered agents do occur.  

Hazardous Child Labor in Fishing 

Some of the push- and pull-factors around child labor are different from the above. Child labor is more likely found in small-scale, coastal fisheries than on the high seas. Often children fish on lakes and in coastal waters as part of a family operation because the family thinks of this as apprenticeship, there are no schools or alternative opportunities available, or simply because the family is poor and cannot afford to hire workers. While this may be less hazardous than fishing on the high seas and may allow the child to go to school part-time, it’s still not acceptable. Fishing is hazardous work by nature and therefore, unsuitable for children. Even if the child goes to school, fishing may take place at night or in the early morning hours, which tires out the child to an extent where learning becomes more difficult or impossible. The Risk Tool considers work on board fishing vessels by anyone below the age of 18 hazardous child labor. 

Challenges Unique to the Fishing Industry  

Unlike other industries that struggle with human rights issues, there are long days at sea in which vessels can be out of sight for years at a time; weak, unclear, or nonexistent governance; and very limited law enforcement. On the high seas, flag states are responsible for ensuring safe and acceptable conditions on board vessels. However, enforcement by flag states varies considerably, and fishing on high seas can happen hundreds or thousands of miles away from the responsible flag state. This makes enforcement at sea difficult and leaves the door open for poor practices, including the use of forced laborers. The global seafood industry’s complex and nontransparent supply chains make it difficult to track products. It also allows producers to mix fish caught legally with those from unsavory sources. In addition, fishing often is listed as a “4D" job meaning dirty, dangerous, difficult, and demeaning. These jobs are not in high demand, and it’s often unskilled or low-skilled migrant workers who are very vulnerable to abuse. (See Push Factors: Migrant Workers)


Modern Slavery, banking, and money laundering from Liberty Asia. 


Human Rights Abuse in Fishing and Environment Degradation – A Vicious Cycle 

Human rights and the health of the environment are linked, particularly when it comes to the fishing industry. Overfishing can diminish livelihoods and lower profits, which can increase poverty, unemployment, and the demand for cheap labor. These conditions then facilitate poor working conditions, forced labor, human trafficking, and hazardous child labor. Not only will environmental degradation create conditions that breed human rights abuse, but also environmental conservation is difficult to achieve in an atmosphere where people are vulnerable and more concerned with survival and where malpractices and criminal activities are ignored or even accepted. Indeed, if slavery can be ignored, illegal fishing probably will be as well. 

Global Slavery – The Big Picture 

Fishing (and the larger seafood industry) isn’t the only industry prone to these abuses. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with International Organization for Migration (IOM), released new global estimates on modern slavery (forced labor and forced marriage) in 2017. It’s estimated that there are almost 25 million people trapped in forced labor worldwide. Half of them are in some form of debt bondage. In 2017, the ILO also released new global estimates on child labor: 151.6 million children between the ages of 7 and 15 are child laborers who are doing work that may harm them physically, mentally or morally, or may jeopardize their education. Almost half of them - 72,525,000 children – are caught in hazardous child labor that may severely impact their physical and/or mental health and development. As noted above, the Risk Tool considers work on board fishing vessels by anyone below the age of 18 hazardous child labor. Overviews and full reports of the global estimates can be found on the Alliance 8.7 website. 


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