This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How has the forced labor threat evolved over the last 20 years?

The last decade has featured increased media and third sector attention to  the issue of forced labor (FL) and Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in the offshore (distant waters) fishing sector in Southeast Asia. The initial catalyst for this attention was a media exposé on the Thai sector by The Guardian, then followed-up by studies from the Environmental Justice Foundation and Human Rights Watch amongst others.[1] In the collective, this documentation identified the following human and labor rights concerns in Thailand’s offshore fishing sector: fraudulent recruitment of fishing crew, including cases of abduction; excessive working hours, normally upwards of 20 hours per day/7 days a week; low or no salary; debt bondage; substandard working and living conditions, including lack of adequate training and equipment, lack of decent food and water rations, and lack of appropriate treatment for injuries and illness, and; violence and suspicious deaths at sea. Apart from Thailand, which draws on fishing crews primarily from Myanmar and Cambodia, Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese fleets have also been more recently identified as presenting major indicators of TIP and FL. These fleets utilize fishing crews from several other Southeast Asian source countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar and Cambodia. Therefore, in geographical terms, the number of countries impacted is larger than initially thought when the focus was on the Thai sector only.

The threat has evolved in the context of changing – and generally worsening – economic conditions associated with a decline in profitability for the offshore fishing industry, both within Asia and globally. This decline in profitability is a direct result of several interrelated factors, including rising oil prices and declining fish stocks caused by a combination of overfishing and the impact of climate change on fish populations. Further, there has been a decline in local crew (from fleet countries such as Thailand, South Korea, and Taiwan) due to the rising standard of living in these countries, coupled with the perceived level of risk, poor conditions, and low pay associated with offshore fishing crew work. Taken together, these factors have created a demand for low-cost and low-valued fishing crews. Migrant workers from economically less advanced countries in Southeast Asia are perceived as a suitable crewing alternative, with their status as migrant workers contributing considerably to their vulnerability for exploitation within the sector. This includes their inability to easily extricate themselves from FL situations due to debt bondage, fraudulent and unfair contract arrangements, and limited ability to physically leave workplaces (vessels) whilst at sea.

What are the primary governance tools being used in response to the forced labor threat?

There are three primary areas of governance currently in place to respond to the threat of FL in the offshore fishing industry: TIP, FL, and the Law of the Sea. Arguably, none of these frameworks are comprehensive and none have been entirely effective in reducing or eliminating the threat.

Trafficking in Persons: The problem of FL is situated within broader global and regional governance frameworks for TIP. All affected states in Southeast Asia have signed and ratified the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (TIP Protocol, 2000) and the ASEAN Convention on Trafficking in Persons (ACTIP, 2015). These international covenants provide standard definitions of human trafficking, elaborate key areas for legislative provisions and policy responses, and promote the importance of inter-state cooperation and intra-state governance frameworks for eliminating the threat of FL. The TIP Protocol was developed under the auspices of the United Nations Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention and this genesis is reflected in the transnational crime approach to the problem of FL. The TIP Protocol contains three distinct, but interrelated elements, namely, prosecution, protection, and prevention – commonly labelled the “3 Ps” of counter-human trafficking. Critical academic scholarship has argued that the crime-centric approach to human trafficking is problematic because criminal justice responses are not effective in addressing the human security (human and labor rights) threats posed by FL. Criminal justice responses have also been criticized as, to date, largely ineffective in disincentivizing offenders. As a corollate, labor-sending and receiving states within Southeast Asia are increasingly looking to safe/managed migration policies to protect migrant laborers from FL.

Forced Labor: Whilst TIP provides one means of interpreting and responding to the problem of FL in Southeast Asia, increasingly, some states, such as Indonesia and Thailand, are looking to international and legislative tools guiding responses to the problem. The ILO’s FL Convention (formally, the Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour, 1930, No. 29) has been signed and ratified by all member states in Southeast Asia, with the exception of Brunei. However, of more relevance is the 2014 Protocol to the FL Convention (No. P29). This Protocol obligates signatory states to take actions to address FL and, consequently, within Southeast Asia only Thailand has ratified this Protocol. Finally, the Working in Fisheries (WIF) Convention (C188, ILO) contains specific and tailored provisions for ratifying states regarding all aspects of work in fisheries and has emerged as the key focal point of lobbying amongst civil society groups concerned with the rights of workers in fishing. As with the FL Protocol, unfortunately, the WIF Convention has neither been signed nor ratified by any Southeast Asian state apart from Thailand to date and has only received 20 ratifications globally.

Maritime Security/UNCLOS: The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) provides a legal framework for global governance of the world’s maritime spaces. There is little direct reference to TIP and FL or human rights more generally in the Convention, and no mention of their relation to existing provisions around limits to state jurisdiction in maritime spaces (such as through the designation of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones). Questions of jurisdiction also remain in relation to the role and responsibilities of flag states for fishing vessels, which surpass those of any other state. For FL, as with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, this means many port states may not be able to exercise sufficient authority and scrutiny over foreign-flagged fishing vessels in their waters. This loophole has created a conducive environment for the (mis)use of flags of convenience on the high seas and in fishing ports.

Gaps in Governance: Despite the comprehensive international and national instruments and policies in place globally and within Southeast Asia, there are at least seven discernible gaps in the governance of FL as a maritime security issue. These are:

Jurisdictional Issues

  1. Lack of accepted mechanisms and protocols by which states can conduct proactive monitoring and inspections of vessels for FL offences in international and territorial waters;
  2. Legislative loopholes which restrict the ability of state authorities to exercise regulatory authority over vessels carrying flags of other states, even where these vessels enter EEZ, or territorial waters of states motivated to investigate and monitor crimes associated with FL;
  3. Lack of established standards and procedures for victim identification, protection and safe repatriation of victims of seafood slavery across jurisdictions;
  4. Lack of formal inter-state co-operation mechanisms (such as Mutual Assistance Treaties in Criminal Matters) by which to expedite police investigations, prosecutions/ extraditions and enhance victim rights across borders.

Agreements, Instruments and Policy

  1. Lack of state commitment to the reduction and elimination of the problem as evidenced by the non-signatory status of most states to key international agreements and instruments;
  2. A continued lack of clear and widespread understanding amongst government and non-government stakeholders about victimology in FL in fisheries;
  3. Policy bottlenecks which see different bureaucratic and ministerial arms adhere to differing and inconsistent definitions of the problem, parameters for victim identification, and do not operate effectively through a whole-of-government approach.

What are the primary harms the forced labor threat poses to regional stakeholders?

State Security: Traditionally, Maritime Security has been perceived and responded to through state-centric security referents. The harms TIP and FL can pose to states are unevenly scored amongst different states in Southeast Asia depending on whether they are primarily a labor (fishing crew) sending or receiving state, port state, or fleet state. TIP and FL intersect with other maritime security and blue crime issues, such as IUU fishing. This raises the question of which arm of the state (civil or military) is responsible for addressing FL and TIP as maritime security issues.

Human Security: Whilst the harms of seafood slavery to individual fishing crews have been extensively documented, the past decade has seen little overall reduction of these harms. Therefore, rather than focusing on further reiteration of what these harms are, it is suggested here that increasing attention be given to ethical modes of engaging survivors in discussions of remedies.

How has maritime awareness developed to reduce the forced labor threat?

Arguably, positive change (threat reduction) follows from increasing awareness of the issue amongst state and non-state actors, including the business community. There has been sustained and detailed media attention and detailed documentation of this issue for more than 10 years now, including through academic and international organization reporting. There has also been a plethora of initiatives to engage key business and government stakeholders throughout the region and several promising initiatives to follow from this (for example, Thailand’s “ship-to-shore” project, discussed briefly below). Given that the scale and, arguably, severity of the issue continues to escalate, it is suggested that: a) evidence-based policy be prioritized; b) research and documentation move beyond documenting human and labor-rights abuses to consider how these may be more effectively identified and addressed through policy mainstreaming; c) opportunities for greater engagement by government and inter-governmental stakeholders with survivors and non-governmental organizations be facilitated.

What additional context is necessary to understand the maritime security challenges associated with the forced labor threat?

The United States Annual Trafficking in Persons Report is important to consider because countries that fail to comply with minimum standards for responding to FL and TIP may be subject to non-humanitarian sanctions. Thailand was subject to this action in 2018, prompting efforts by the Thai government to reform the seafood and offshore fishing sectors. The Thai sector was also subject to punitive actions by the European Union (EU) through its “card system” developed as an EU-IUU Regulation (No. 1005/2008) to deter IUU fishing. Thailand was issued a “yellow card” warning in 2014, exerting pressure to reform its offshore fishing sector. As part of these reforms, the “ship-to-shore” project, funded by the EU and implemented by the ILO in 2017 was introduced.[2] There has been consideration to extend this project to other countries in the region where there is evidence of FL in offshore fisheries. Nonetheless, Thailand’s offshore fishing sector presents significant differences from those of Taiwan, South Korea, and China. A fuller consideration of these departures is important to undertake before any efforts to replicate the project elsewhere are pursued.

[1] Trafficked into slavery on Thai trawlers to catch food for prawns | Slavery | The Guardian, (Environmental Justice Foundation | Protecting People and Planet (, and Hidden Chains: Rights Abuses and Forced Labor in Thailand’s Fishing Industry | HRW),

[2] see Ship to Shore Rights: Endline research findings on fishers and seafood workers in Thailand (

About Sallie Yea

Sallie Yea is a human geographer, with an interest in understanding various forms of unfree labor, including human trafficking and modern-day slavery, and precarious migration experiences.