Symposium: Land and Sea: Gendered Nature of Labour and Sexual Exploitation in Fisheries

19 March 2021
Research Innovation

Juno Fitzpatrick  | Director of Human Rights and Oceans, Conservation International
Elena Finkbeiner  | Coastal Community Fisheries Program Manager, Conservation International

Environmental sustainability has been the central focus of fisheries management and seafood market standards for decades. In marine wild capture fisheries, forced labour, human trafficking for labour exploitation and deplorable labour conditions are increasingly being recognized as intertwined with environmental issues, namely habitat destruction, overfishing and illegal fishing. This interplay of conditions threatens the viability of livelihoods and food security, and creates conditions for discrimination and subversion of human rights. In recent years, media revelations and scientific research have brought increased attention to human rights violations, in both developing and developed economies, pointing to the global scale of human rights violations in seafood supply chains.

This International Women’s Day, groups such as Conservation International called for the greater protection of women’s rights and economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights in seafood value chains. Globally, the seafood sector is women-intensive but male-dominated. Women play a vital, yet often overlooked, role in seafood production and seafood processing, including non-vessel based activities like gleaning, adding value to harvested products and marketing. According to some estimates, women make up 47 per cent of the global fishing workforce and between 80-90 per cent of the post-harvest sector roles.

Sexual exploitation and seafood landing hubs

Despite the prominent role of women in the industry, much of the media, research and subsequent seafood sector response to human rights violations in fisheries is focused on safeguarding men against modern slavery at sea. Globally, it is reported that more men (69 per cent) than women (40 per cent) are victims of labour exploitation in the private economy. Mirroring this trend, the vast majority of reported victims of deceptive and coercive labour practices in sea-based fisheries is male.  Whilst there is a lack of evidence illustrating that women are subject to forced labour or human trafficking on board fishing vessels, women and girls are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation in the fisheries sector on land. Across the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. Department of State has documented sex trafficking of women and children in service of crew members of foreign tuna fishing fleets and transshipment vessels that dock in port. It is further reported that an influx of foreign investment in Pacific Island Countries has led to increased risk of forced labour and forced sexual exploitation of migrant workers in the fishing sectors.

At ports or landing sites, women also encounter pervasive gender-based violence (GBV). For example, in Nyamware Beach, Lake Victoria, women work in the post-harvest sector, where they unload, process and market fish. However, women are often required to have sex with fishermen as a transactional means to secure priority access to the commodity when landed. This practice has led to high rates of sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV/AIDS, and intensified gender-based violence within communities adjacent to the lake.

Trafficking in persons in the fishing industry: Fish processing

Women are also victims of human trafficking and deplorable labour conditions in the land-based fish processing sectors. In 2006, the Thai police and immigration authorities raid of the Ranya Paew shrimp processing factory in Samut Sakhon drew attention to the 800 men, women and children from Myanmar imprisoned behind a razor wire-topped compound, living in squalid conditions and subject to physical, emotional and sexual abuse and harassment. Lesser known yet extensive inequalities persist within the essential roles that women hold in post-harvest commercial-based factories. Journalist investigations have uncovered horrific examples of  factory workers spending 16 hours a day with their hands in ice water peeling shrimp, and women experiencing low pay, extreme hours, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, verbal abuse and occupational health hazards.

Furthermore, women in the global seafood industry are being disproportionately impacted by the economic and social fallout as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID crisis rapidly destabilized fisheries and aquaculture industries, disrupting supply chains and rendering marginalized groups, such as women and migrant fish workers, vulnerable to shifting sector demands. Within the post-harvest sector, women are at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to their close proximity to one another in processing and marketing areas and, as Oxfam reports, can be excluded from social protection and basic benefits due to their temporary or informal status as unregistered workers.

Gender-aware institutional responses

The recent exposure of labour violations throughout seafood supply chains has created impetus for industry, governments and nonprofit organizations to develop solutions to address these issues. Akin to measures taken to achieve environmental sustainability, initiatives such as strengthening ethical sourcing policies, adopting third-party social certifications and introducing traceability systems to increase supply chain oversight are steps in the right direction. Further action is needed to map and address the gendered nature of human rights violations in discrete segments of seafood supply chains in order to target specific high-risk contexts for women: landing sites, post-harvest and processing. The 2017 Monterey Framework for Socially Responsible Seafood calls on government and industry alike to protect human rights, dignity and access to resources; to ensure equality and equitable opportunity to benefit; and to improve the food and livelihood security for crew, communities and workers. By mainstreaming women’s essential role in the sector, supply chain actors can activate new partners and policy levers to institute cascading gender-aware policies, practices and social protections to uplift the women that constitute 47 per cent of the sector.

This article has been prepared by Juno Fitzpatrick and Elena Finkbeiner as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 “Gendered Measurements of Modern Slavery” symposium. Read all the responses below:


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