“We’ve described how, once a ship is registered under a flag of convenience, the flag state often places no restriction on the nationality of the crew, leaving the shipowner free to recruit the cheapest labor possible from countries that can do nothing to protect those laborers even if they want to, leaving the crews with only the flag state to protect them. And most flag states, as we’ve detailed, care little for anything other than collecting their registration fees.
This situation, not surprisingly, has led to widespread mistreatment of crews on flagged-out ships, with the members of some of those crews being turned into virtual prisoners at sea, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). The worst of these ships, says the ITF in one report, are ‘floating sweatshops,’ forcing their crews to live in horrific conditions, go without sufficient food or water, work long periods of overtime without compensation, get little if any shore leave, and receive no medical attention to speak of.
Again not surprisingly, more of these ships can be found off the coast of West Africa than anywhere else in the world. That region is, as we’ve noted, one of the busiest industrial fishing hot spots on the planet, its waters once replete with more than a thousand species of fish ranging from sea bream, white grouper, pink African sole, firm-fleshed barracuda, jelly-fleshed eel, anchovy, sardine, and octopus to the ever-popular staples of tuna, sea bass, and the like. Six countries in West Africa–Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia, Cape Verde, Ginnea-Bissau, and Guinea–are particularly victimized by foreign fleets from Europe and Asia.
In 2006, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Greenpeace teamed up to survey those West African waters, and in the waters off the coast of Guinea they found that more than half of the 104 boats they tracked were fishing illegally. The investigators’ cameras recorded vessels whose names were hidden to prevent reporting, boats whose names were changed from week to week (so several vessels could use the same permit), and boats that offloaded their catches to pickup ships far from shore in the dead of night so they could avoid quota limits and continue filling their nets…
Under the headline ‘Modern-Day Slavery: Horrific Conditions on board Ships Catching Fish for Europe,’ the story described the ‘human degradation’ experienced by the vessel’s thirty-six crewmen, who were from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone. This crew and others who were interviewed reportedly were forced to work eighteen-hour shifts in a 104 degree Fahrenheit to 113 degree Fahrenheit fish hold with no ventilation, were fed food pulled from ‘disgusting boxes’ in galleys filled with cockroaches, had only salt water to use for washing, and slept on makeshift bunks fashioned from cardboard and wood planks in a windowless corner of the fish hold where the ceiling was too low for the men to stand upright.
Crew members from the relatively nearby Sierra Leone were paid not with money, but with boxes of trash fish–a common term for bycatch–that they were expected to sell locally. ‘If anyone complained,’ the story reported, ‘the captain would abandon them on the nearest beach.'”