Fishing in Myanmar’s Gulf of Mottama is dangerous business. Hours are long and conditions are harsh.While forced labour and slavery in the fishing industry in Thailand and other parts of the world have been brought to light in recent years, the fishing industry in Myanmar has received less attention.
But this may be about to change as Myanmar’s seafood businesses are increasingly seeking export markets, including the EU. And unless the EU responds to the clear evidence of widespread slavery and brutal conditions in Myanmar’s fishing industry, Europe could face another slavery scandal.
Shrimp from Myanmar could soon be landing on European plates. The Myanmar government has been in talks about how more processors and exporters can meet the sustainability rules that will allow them to export to the EU.
Europeans have been careless about slavery in our supply chains before. It would be another dreadful failure if we fail to ensure that human rights are central to future trade relationships with Myanmar.
Fishing in Myanmar is a lucrative business. Between September and May up to 50,000 men work to catch around 10,000 tonnes of fish, mostly shrimp.
The owners are believed to yield a healthy profit – especially when the raft is crewed using slave labour.
The Guardian spoke with raft workers in five communities in the Irrawaddy Delta as they waited ashore for the weather to calm. They were told about physical confinement on the rafts for months at a time and excessive working hours, with fishermen working 16 hours, every day, for nine months. Routine use of violence, include rumours of murder of fishermen by supervisors. The employment conditions of all of the raft fishers that we spoke to fitted the international definition of slavery.
The investigation also tackled the root causes that make people vulnerable to slavery. Debt is at the core of the system keeping these men enslaved. In countless villages across Myanmar, and around the world, poorer families are mired in debt and driven into exploitative situations.
Efforts to escape the impoverishment that debt imposes have led tens of thousands of people from south-east Asia to seek employment in the fishing industry in Thailand, where many end up in forced labour.
Foremen on the rafts in the Gulf of Mottama will be paid around USD1,000 for their nine months at sea. Loans from village money lenders, who typically charge around 20 percent interest per month, make up any shortfall. The sums that raft fishermen are promised are often only enough to maintain these high-interest debts, not to pay them off.
Every year, they have to submit to continued exploitation at the fisheries. Forced labour is a huge, unaddressed issue across Myanmar, with one in 10 school age children involved in child labour. This is underpinned by an ocean of debt following years of underdevelopment due to the military regime and international sanctions.
Legal cancellation of extortionate debt held by private money lenders by the government could enable people to break free of debt bondage, although this measure alone would not be enough to end slavery.
The EU must know that without radical measures to tackle exploitation and the debt that sustains it, fish from Myanmar will carry the bloody taint of slavery, the investigators concluded. (Source: The Guardian)