By Ed Holt
BRATISLAVA, Jan 19 2024 (IPS)
“The thing is that when you come from an African country, they know that you’re basically trapped,” says Noel Adabblah.
“You have the wrong documents; you can’t go home because you’ve already borrowed money there to get here, and you won’t risk losing what work you have, no matter how bad, because of that. They know all the tricks.”
The 36-year-old is speaking from Dublin, where he has managed to make a new life for himself after becoming a victim of what recent reports have shown to be widespread and growing forced labour in fishing fleets across the globe.
Adabblah, from Tema in Ghana, and three friends signed up with a recruitment agency back home to work as fishers on boats in the UK. They paid the equivalent of 1,200 EUR to be placed in jobs and were given letters of invitation and guarantees by their new employers, who said they would be met in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and who agreed to take care of all their documents and visas. Their employment contracts stated the men would be paid 1,000 GBP per month and employed for 12 months, with an option to reduce or extend that by three months upon mutual consent.
But when they arrived in January 2018, they were taken to Dublin and later split up. In the following months, they were taken to do various jobs at different ports in Ireland, sometimes late at night with no idea where they were going.
“We thought we were going there to sail and fish, but when we got there, we saw the boats were not ready; they were in poor condition, and we couldn’t fish, so the owner of the boats got us to do other jobs instead,” Adabblah tells IPS.
“But after a few months, we said this is not what we came here to do. We had an argument over pay—he said he had no boats to fish with and wanted to lay us off, told us to go home. But we said no, that we had a 12-month contract we had signed for. He said he wouldn’t pay us, but could try to get us another job with someone else, but we said we couldn’t do that because the visas we had only applied to working for him. He told us if we didn’t like it, we could go home.”
It is at this point that many victims of forced labour often simply accept their fate and either go home or do whatever their employer wants. But Adabblah and his friends were determined to see the terms of their contract met, and they contacted the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
However, their problems deepened as they discovered they did not have the right documents for their work.
“We had no idea of the difference between Ireland and the UK. We thought the papers were OK. But when we went to the ITF, we realized they weren’t,” explains Adabblah.
At that point, the Irish police were obliged to open an investigation into the case.
Adabblah, who stayed in Ireland and has since managed to find work in the construction industry, says he heard nothing about the case until last year. “I heard that the police had said there was not enough evidence to pursue a conviction,” he says. Forced labour does not exist as an offense on the Irish statute books, so such cases are investigated under human trafficking legislation.
Regardless of the lack of a conviction in his case, he is clear that what he and his friends experienced was forced labour.
“They treated us badly. We worked 20-hour shifts some days. Once, when I was ill and couldn’t go on the boat, they said that if I couldn’t do the job, I could go home. They say stuff like that to threaten you,” he says.
Adabblah’s experience is far from unique among workers in the world’s fishing fleets. A recent report by the Financial Transparency Coalition, an international grouping of NGOs, said that more than 128,000 fishers were trapped in forced labour aboard fishing vessels in 2021. Its authors say there is a “human rights crisis” of forced labour aboard commercial fishing vessels, leading to horrific abuses and even deaths.
They point out that many of these victims of forced labour are from the global South, something that the people behind these crimes use to their advantage, experts say.
Michael O’Brien of the ITF’s Fisheries Section told IPS: “Those employing vulnerable migrants in forced labour scenarios rely upon the vulnerability of the victim, the potential lack of legal status of the victim in the country where they are working, and the victim’s reliance on an income that is unavailable to them in their country of origin.”
Mariama Thiam, an investigative journalist in Senegal who did research for the Financial Transparency Coalition report, said fishers often do not know what they are signing up for.
“Usually there is a standard contract that the fisher signs, and often they sign it without understanding it fully,” she told IPS. “Most Senegalese fishermen have a low level of education. The contract is checked by the national fishing agency, which sees it, says it looks okay, approves it, and the fishers then go, but the fishers don’t understand what’s in it.”
Then, once they have started work, the men are so desperate to keep their jobs that they will put up with whatever conditions they have to.
“All the fishers I have spoken to say they have had no choice but to do the work because they cannot afford to lose their jobs—their families rely on them. Some of them were beaten or did not have any days off; captains systematically confiscate all their passports when they go on board—the captains say that if the fishermen have their passports, some will go on shore when they are in Europe and stay on there, migrating illegally,” she said.
“In the minds of Senegalese fishermen, their priority is salary. They can tolerate human rights abuses and forced labour if they get their salary,” Thiam added.
Adabblah agrees, adding though that this allows the criminals behind the forced labour to continue their abuses.
“The thing is that a lot of people are afraid to speak up because of where they are from, and they end up being too scared to say anything even if they are really badly treated. There are lots of people who are in the same situation as I was or experiencing much worse, but if no one speaks up, how can [criminals] be identified?” he says.
Experts on the issue say the owners of vessels where forced labour is alleged to have occurred hide behind complex corporate structures and that many governments take a lax approach to uncovering ultimate beneficial ownership information when vessels are registered or fishing licenses are applied for.
This means those behind the abuses are rarely identified, let alone punished.
“In Senegal, what happens is that the government doesn’t want to share information on owner control of boats. No one can get information on it, not journalists, not activists, sometimes not even people in other parts of government itself,” said Thiam.
Other problems include a lack of legislation to even deal with the problem. For instance, Thiam highlighted that fishers in Senegal work under a collective convention dating back to 1976 that does not mention forced labour.
O’Brien added: “In the Irish context, there has never been a prosecution for human trafficking for labour exploitation in fisheries or any other sector.
“There is a school of thought among progressive lawyers that we need a separate offense on the statute books of ‘labour exploitation’ to obtain convictions. In the case of fishers, some remedies can be obtained via the labour and maritime authorities, but these are lower-level offenses that do not have a dissuasive effect on the vessel owners.”
Victims also face difficulties seeking redress in their home countries.
Complaints to recruiting agencies in fishers’ home countries often come to nothing and can end up having serious consequences.
“The thing about the agency I dealt with at home and other agencies like it is that if you complain to them, they will just say that you are talking too much and you should come home and solve the situation there, and then when you get home, they just blacklist you and you won’t get any fishing work ever again; they will just recruit someone else,” says Adabblah.
Although Adabblah did not see the justice he had hoped for, he is aware his story has ended better than many other victims of forced labour. He, along with his three friends, have made new lives in Ireland, and he is hoping to soon begin the process of becoming a naturalised Irish citizen.
He urges anyone who finds themselves in the same situation to not stay quiet, and instead contact an organization like the ITF or something similar.
Doing so may not always bring victims a satisfactory resolution to their problems, but each publicized case may end up having a long-term positive effect on stopping others from being abused, said O’Brien.
“The ITF has significant resources but not enough to match the scale of the problem. The cases we take up like Noel’s are the tip of the iceberg. However, we use these cases, with the consent of the victims, to highlight the problem with governments and, in turn, campaign for changes in the law,” he said.
IPS UN Bureau Report