Safeguarding Against and Addressing Fishers’ Exploitation at Sea
Project Duration
December 2017
November 2022
Funding and Year

The SAFE Seas project works to counter forced labor and human trafficking on fishing vessels in Indonesia and the Philippines. The project works to strengthen government enforcement capacity and deepen engagement among fishers, the private sector and civil society. As a result, SAFE Seas helps to promote supply chains free of exploitative labor and a fair playing field for workers in the U.S. and around the world.

The Problem

Egregious labor abuses on fishing vessels in Southeast Asia are well documented: trafficked workers trapped at sea and forced to work 20-hour days for little or no pay; employers subjecting them in many cases to severe physical abuse and putting them in chains or cells. However, the isolated nature of work on waters and the complexities related to jurisdiction over vessels and fishers present a number of challenges to ending these abusive practices.  Labor trafficking is not always included among the criminal activities law enforcement officials look for when they search fishing vessels. Coordination presents a further challenge as multiple agencies and offices with differing regulatory mandates, as well as differing levels of expertise and resource, all seek to address this problem. Many fishers also lack awareness about labor rights and acceptable conditions of work, shutting them out of conversations about how best to protect them.

Our Strategy

SAFE Seas builds off nearly twenty years of ILAB experience fighting trafficking and child labor in the fisheries sector by helping the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines strengthen regulations and policies to address labor exploitation on fishing vessels.

Working with government ministries and agencies, including labor, maritime/agriculture, anti-trafficking police and coast guard/defense, SAFE Seas helps to improve coordination and raise the profile of labor issues within government interagency structures. It also encourages the use of multi-disciplinary inspection models that integrate checks for forced labor, human trafficking and other exploitative practices into searches for illegal activity on fishing vessels. By engaging fishers themselves, the project ensures reporting and remedy mechanisms are relevant, accessible and responsive to their unique circumstances and needs.


In Indonesia, SAFE Seas has:

  • Helped develop and is currently supporting the adoption of a National Action Plan  for the Protection of Seafarers and Fishery Vessel Personnel (2021-2024) led by the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Investment. This plan will ultimately go into force, protecting fishers and seafarers throughout Indonesia.
  • Established a multi-agency Safe Fishing Alliance at the national level and two at the provincial level – in North Sulawesi and Central Java. The Safe Fishing Alliances bring together key government, private sector representatives, workers’ representatives, and civil society institutions, to guide improvements across a range of project interventions.
  • Endorsed a Safe Fishing Alliance to take action at the local level in North Sulawesi. The alliance also facilitated a multi-agency inspection on fishing vessels in North Sulawesi led by the Ministry of Manpower Office.
  • •    Supported the establishment and current operations of two local fisher centers (in Bitung and Central Java) providing information and reporting mechanisms for fishers and their family members. The centers also offer capacity building for private sector recruitment agencies to ensure the fair recruitment of fishers from Indonesia. The fisher centers operate helpdesks and telephone hotline services to better serve fishers.

In the Philippines, SAFE Seas has:

  • Established a multi-agency Safe Fishing Alliance at the national level, as well as three related sub-working groups on seafarers and fishers. These bodies help focus attention and action on improving labor conditions for fish workers and seafarers in the Philippines. 
  • Facilitated partnerships with key government agencies to coordinate policies and regulations across the government on fishers working conditions.
  • Established Safe Fishing Alliances in Puerto Princesa and Tay. In Puerto Princesa, the Alliance proposed an amendment to an existing city ordinance on forced labor and human trafficking to address the role of government during fishing vessel inspections, as well as penalties associated with infractions and a protocol for rescue operations. 
  • Conducted a multi-agency inspection of a fishing vessel in Tay Tay to pre-test a multi-agency inspection checklist that will inform future fishing vessel inspections.
  • Published a research study on the “Effects of Forced Labor and Trafficking in Persons on Female Relatives of Male Fishers,” which takes a closer look at women’s awareness of forced labor and trafficking in persons on fishing vessels; how this affects women and their families; how women cope with these effects; and their potential as key advocates for fair working conditions at sea. This research increases the very limited knowledge base on women associated with the fishing sector.