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Cheap seafood endangers fish workers right to food - UN expert

28 February 2019

GENEVA (28 February 2019) – Low wages and horrendous working conditions on fishing vessels, fish farms and in processing factories have a serious impact on the everyday lives of the workers’ families, Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food said during her presentation to the Human Rights Council today. 

“Most of the 120 million people working in the fisheries sector - often exposed to dangerous conditions and working up to 20 hours a day - don’t earn a living wage. They therefore fail to fulfil their families’ basic needs including food, clothing, housing, education and healthcare,” the expert stressed. 

Around 24,000 workers in the fish industry die each year, and many more are seriously injured, even permanently. People working in fish farms often face serious health issues due to exposure to toxic chemicals. Yet, they and their families fail to receive compensation as they tend to work informally outside of national labour and social protection schemes, plunging the families into poverty.

Women and children are invisible in the fishing sector. “Women are employed at fish processing firms, peeling frozen shrimps without any protection for hours a day, in damp settings for minimal wages, most of the time even as unpaid family members,” Elver said. “Children, further  are requested to work to help their families in the pursuit of food, but are often exploited  as cheap labour on fishing boats, with no consideration to the dangerous nature of the work.” 

Cases of physical abuse and of labour exploitation in the fishing sector are widespread. Migrant workers in particular are frequently trafficked and forced to work on fishing boats. “These workers remain trapped at sea for years, without pay or contact with their families,” Elver added. “They barely get enough food to eat, and are beaten if the captain thinks they are not working hard enough, or in extreme  cases, abandoned in a foreign port or even thrown overboard.” 

The Special Rapporteur called on States to abide by their legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food of people working in the fisheries sector. In order to do so, they should strengthen the legal protection of those workers, enhance their labour inspections, properly investigate allegations of abuse and ensure that victims of abuses can get appropriate remedies.

”The increasing worldwide demand for widely available cheap seafood, in particular salmon, tuna and shrimp, is a factor in the continuous hunt for cheap labour in the sector,” the expert concluded. “Everyone, including consumers must help to improve the situation of fishery workers, for example by buying fish grown or captured locally by small-scale fishers.”


Ms. Hilal Elver (Turkey) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the right to food by the Human Rights Council in 2014. She is a Research Professor, and global distinguished fellow at the University of California, Law School Resnick Food Law and Policy Center. She has a law degree, a Ph.D. from the University of Ankara Law School, and SJD from the UCLA Law School. She started her teaching career at the University of Ankara Faculty of Law.  

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work. 

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