The global demand for cheap seafood has led the seafood industry to rely heavily on sourcing from the Asia-Pacific region. There, a large workforce of migrant workers catch, farm, and process most of the world's seafood supply. Many are subjected to labor exploitation in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, also known as IUU fishing. Employers subject workers to emotional and physical abuse, excessive overtime, poor living conditions, deceptive or coercive recruiting, and non-payment or underpayment of wages. The isolated nature of fishing activity makes addressing forced labor in the industry especially challenging.

In 2017, we launched the Safe Seas Project with Plan International to address systemic issues that allow labor exploitation to flourish at sea in Indonesia and the Philippines. Five years later, the project has ended. We spoke with Plan International's Kate Ezzes, who has been overseeing the project since 2018, about the challenges and successes of the project.

Why is labor exploitation at sea often considered labor trafficking?

Recruiters promise Indonesian and Filipino fishers, primarily young men, high-paying, decent, safe jobs on fishing vessels. They are then trafficked into international waters and held on boats, where they are exploited for their labor while receiving little to no pay.

Victims of trafficking report that employers exert control by withholding their wages, denying them freedom of movement, seizing their documents, and holding them in cycles of debt bondage. Over 83% of victims have reported suffering both psychological and physical abuse.

Most forced labor and human trafficking victims in Rambang and Tagal, major Indonesian port areas, are between 12 and 29 years old. Children and youth often face pressure to help support their families, and it is relatively easy to influence and illegally recruit them globally.

fishermen with fishing nets

What are the challenges of addressing labor exploitation at sea that became evident through the project?

In Indonesia and the Philippines, fishing regulations were insufficient, and the government lacked the capacity to conduct inspections and take follow-up action. In many cases, there were gaps in the regulations and policies that prevented the proper implementation of laws. IUU fishing is not considered a crime in either country. And national human trafficking task forces do not formally recognize the fishing industry as a source of human trafficking and exploitation. So even when law enforcement searches vessels, labor trafficking is not always among the criminal activities they look for.

Another challenge was that fisher folk were unaware of their rights, and existing grievance reporting mechanisms were ineffective.

How did the Safe Seas project address these challenges?

One of our strategic interventions was establishing Safe Fishing Alliances (SFA) in both countries. The strategy behind the SFAs was to promote a common understanding of forced labor and trafficking while ensuring collaboration and coordination between government agencies, the private sector, civil society, and fishing communities.

For example, the project regularly shared updates about the work conditions faced by Indonesian migrant fishers and discussed case reports from the Fisher Centers. These reports spurred relevant ministries to strengthen collaboration with destination countries proactively. Working collaboratively, the SFAs resolved the problem of different mandates and overlapping regulations and closed the legal gaps that allowed fishers to fall through the cracks.

We also established a training program for government officials and relevant stakeholders on how to carry out inspections on fishing vessels. The program worked with government agencies to develop procedures to identify fishing vessel labor violations. Through a participatory process with government agencies, we helped formulate site-specific labor inspection procedures for critical ports. We then developed these procedures into a Multi-Disciplinary Inspections training manual. Newly trained vessel inspectors then piloted the procedures on vessels at port.

Educating fishers and their families about their rights and providing a space to voice complaints was as critical as addressing the regulatory and legal issues. We did this by setting up community-based Fishers Centers in eight villages near ports where fishers can report grievances and access referral services and information about workers' protection and rights.

Hundreds of fishers and their families have used the Centers, which will continue to operate beyond the life of the SAFE Seas project as hubs for community action to support fishers.

What was innovative about the Safe Seas Program?

One of the project's most innovative aspects was engaging all stakeholders from the beginning, including the Indonesian and Filipino Governments, fishers, the private sector, civil society, and communities. We worked closely with local community organizations and the government to ensure buy-in and participation from day one and sustainability once we turned the project over to local leaders and community-based organizations.

What was one key lesson learned from the project?

A program focused on IUU fishing is incredibly complex and includes many stakeholders. One key lesson learned is the need to increase engagement with the governments of destination countries in addition to the source countries. In the Asia region, this would include a specific focus on Taiwan.

Looking back, what project result are you most proud of? What were the biggest successes in terms of impact?

The level of commitment and engagement from communities has been remarkable. In Indonesia, dedicated volunteer groups serve as a community-based protection mechanism for fishers. They raise awareness about fisher's rights, receive grievance reports, and connect fishers to Fishers Center, service providers, and relevant government agencies for follow-up assistance. The women members have been vital to the successful functioning of the groups. They play a significant role in reporting complaints or fishers' rights violations on behalf of their male relatives/husbands. They have become crucial and adept advocates against forced labor and trafficking in their communities.

Another 100% volunteer organization protecting fishers is SAKTI, a network of 250 paralegal village volunteers trained by local organizations. The group educates fishers about their rights, provides legal assistance, and assists with securing vital documentation such as contracts and passports.

Seeing how communities are taking ownership of the work we started is deeply gratifying and a great example of what communities can accomplish when empowered with knowledge. Working alongside communities as they learned about fishing exploitation and worker rights and then participated in developing solutions has been a rewarding experience.

To learn more about the Safe Seas Project, please visit:

Read the fact sheet: Strengthening Labor Conditions and Promoting Good Jobs in the Fishing Sector