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31 May 2023

Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF),
Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL)

S. Korea: CSOs find migrant fishers on Korean distant water fishing fleets still face severe human rights abuses

See all tags Allegations

"Korea’s Migrant Fishers Plan fails to end human rights abuses at sea," 31 May 2023

This briefing finds that new measures introduced in 2021 to protect migrant fishers in the Korean distant water fishing (DWF) fleet have failed to uphold their basic human rights. Conditions for fishers have not improved, and indicators of forced labour and human trafficking remain prevalent.

[...] Korea has one of the world’s largest distant water fishing fleets, with 200 vessels flying the Korean flag and an unknown number of vessels around the world linked to Korean interests. The operation of the fleet heavily depends on migrant fishers - around 77% of fishers working onboard Korean DWF vessels are migrant workers and most of them, 79%, are from Indonesia, according to data from 2021.

[...] In December 2020, in response to the EJF and APIL briefing and rising domestic social awareness, the Korean government announced a series of reforms. Through the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF), the competent authority responsible for governing seafarers, it introduced the “Implementation Plan for Migrant Fishers on Distant Water Fishing Vessels” (hereafter, "the Plan"). The new measures outlined in the Plan attempted to enhance protections for migrant fishers on Korean DWF vessels, including preventing excessive working hours by setting a minimum of six hours rest per day, setting a minimum salary based on the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) standards and requiring the provision of necessities such as clean water. The Plan was enacted in January 2021.

To monitor the progress and effectiveness of the Plan, EJF and APIL interviewed 74 migrant fishers who worked on Korean-flagged and Korean-owned DWF vessels between 2021 and 2022 and found little has changed since the Plan was introduced. None of the interventions in the Plan have led to improved conditions for fishers. The major findings include:

  • 60% of the interviewees reported excessively long working hours of more than 14 hours per day. 26% of the interviewees sometimes had to work more than 18 hours straight without rest.
  • 40% of all interviewees stayed at sea for more than a year. Of all whom worked on longliners, 84% stayed more than a year without entering any ports.
  • 59% of the interviewees reported being paid below the minimum wage, which is already far lower than Korean nationals.
  • Of all interviewees, 51% had to pay recruitment fees, 47% were subjected to salary deductions and 39% reported their wages were withheld by manning agencies
  • All interviewees reported their identity documents were illegally confiscated.
  • No perpetrators were penalised yet 83% of crew experienced verbal abuse, 24% reported physical abuse, and three crew members reported being sexually abused.
  • No proactive grievance system is provided to fishers. 92% of the interviewees had never heard of any official grievance system at all.