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West Africa

Hundreds working as slaves in fishing vessels

5 min

Hundreds of people are working in modern-day slavery on illegal fishing vessels off the coast of west Africa, according to a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation. The group says it observed horrific conditions aboard unlicensed boats operating near the coast of Sierra Leone and Guinea.

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On some vessels crews are unpaid and confined on board to stop them leaving. It is calling for international regulators to step in to stop the forced labour.

People are often working in old vessels with no safety standards on board. Some of the men have been at sea for years.

"Down below in the fish holds where they spend most of their time, it's incredibly hot, dirty rusty, jagged pieces of metal sticking out everywhere," says Duncan Copeland of the Environmental Justice Foundation. "They're often working in bare feet."

In one vessel eight men were sleeping in four bunks in a cupboard off the side of the fish hold with no ventilation, Copeland reports. In another, 200 men were forced to sleep in makeshift accommodation, which was open to the elements on the back of the deck.

Duncan Copeland, Environmental Justice Foundation, London.

Crews recruited from west Africa are paid in boxes of frozen fish, which the vessel doesn't think have value on the international market. Others are recruited from rural areas in China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Their passports are taken away when they arrive.

"Very often they are hiding behind shell companies," says Copeland. "When a vessel is caught, it's very hard to identify who is behind it to prosecute them."

None of the international regulatory frameworks that have been developed to address the conditions of fishing vessels has been internationally ratified.

"Some of these treaties have been on the books of the International Labour Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation since the 70s and still they don't have enough signatories to come into effect," says Copeland. "Right now there's a huge gap in international regulation addressing the situation."

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