Foreign Policy Blogs

Modern Slavery at Sea


(U.S. Navy photo / Andrew M. Meyers)

The discovery in Scotland of a group of 15 unpaid Indian seamen trapped on the MV Malaviya Seven, a BP-charted offshore oil supply vessel, once again highlights the links between forced labor in Asia and the formal, legal global economy.

It also raises questions over respect for the law and human rights within the global oil and gas shipping sector itself, exposing the mistreatment of a mainly Asian workforce hidden away at sea by their employers.

The modern world has almost entirely disowned historical chattel slavery where individuals were treated as complete property of their masters, to be bought and sold like any other good. This kind of slavery only persists in a few countries like Niger out of poverty and old cultural tradition.

But the open and transparent world of the new global economy has a dark underside; while it has created unprecedented wealth and opportunities for millions, it has also created a huge demand for workers at a time when companies are simultaneously under pressure to cut costs. Supply chains are long and complex, often stretching around the globe, and determining responsibility for working conditions can be impossible.

This opens the door to the most common kind of modern slavery, forced labor. This is defined as situations in which individuals are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation such as threats over debts, a worker’s immigration status or the confiscation of identity papers.

Indeed the largest number of modern slaves are not found in poverty-stricken African countries like Niger but in the thriving Asia-Pacific region, which holds an estimated 11.7 million forced laborers, or 56% of the global total. By contrast Africa, the continent with the next largest population of forced laborers, has just 3.7 million.

Nowadays the International Labour Organization (ILO) states the overwhelming majority of cases of forced labor stem from exploitation of individuals by private individuals or companies, rather than rebel armies or state organizations. As their countries develop Asian workers often become victims of their new employers.

Tellingly while the MV Malaviya Seven was detained in the UK by maritime authorities and had been working in and out of UK ports, servicing the UK sector, it was registered to a Mumbai-based company GOL Offshore.

But the ship’s example also highlights how the hidden nature of forced labor inside a sector not associated with such abuses in the way that domestic work, agriculture, entertainment, construction, or manufacturing sometimes are.

In fact in many sectors tasks are now routinely subcontracted out to smaller companies or “gangmasters” around the globe, whose job it is to supply workers at the cheapest rates possible, and this seems to have been the case with the MV Malaviya Seven. Oil industry publication Offshore Energy Today revealed that the vessel had been on recent charter in the UK offshore sector with some of the industry’s biggest names, including BP, Wood Group, Dana and Premier Oil.

As recorded by unions and trade industry publications, tough times for the global oil shipping industry according have seen some such firms breaking the law rather than letting themselves go to the wall; cases of withholding pay, locking workers in hatches or even feeding crews starvation diets have been recorded.

The isolation at sea and the global nature of the industry makes abuses harder to detect than at land based sites, which can be monitored more easily by enforcement agencies. But forced labor inside the private economy also generates $150 billion in illicit global annual profits according to the ILO, highlighting the profitability of illegal exploitation.

In a statement concerning the MV Malaviya Seven’s case, the General Secretary of the UK’s RMT union Mick Cash said: “The seizure of this vessel exposes the scandal of modern-day slavery on our ships right at the heart of the UK’s oil capital, Aberdeen. It also exposes the shameful practices in the exploitation of our natural resources, practices that must be outlawed and regulated against immediately.

“These ships of shame are a blatant abuse of migrant workers and are contrary to any number of stated industry and government objectives around human rights and maximizing economic recovery from our resources.”

In its most recent report on the issue, Beate Andrees, then-head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, explained that most countries have now passed legislation outlawing forced labor, human trafficking and slavery-like practices. The key is now enforcing these laws adequately in practice.

She said: “The successful prosecution of individuals who bring such misery to so many remains inadequate—this needs to change. We must also ensure that the numbers of victims does not rise during the current economic crisis where people are increasingly vulnerable to these heinous practices.”

The danger is that at least in the oil shipping industry, prosecutions for forced labor will remain difficult and rare. The MV Malaviya is almost certainly not the only case even in a small European country like the UK, where British seamen have been largely replaced by workers from the Philippines, Indonesia or India, as supply ships respond to the oil price crisis by looking to recruit ever cheaper labor from developing countries.

But the chances of abusive shipping companies being caught are even lower in the busy waters of rapidly developing countries like China and India, or states like Libya or Turkey, where oil shipments have been credibly linked to illegal armed groups and organized crime.

On ships working in the waters off poorer Asian states, where resources for law enforcement agencies are few and corruption and official tolerance for rule-breaking are higher, crews in the oil shipping industry are even more vulnerable than they are in the UK’s North Sea. Yet increasingly the energy industry is sending its exports to the emerging Asian giants.

Prominent global companies such as BP are quick to cut their ties with firms like GOL Offshore when they are exposed by unions, activists or the media as having used forced labor. But the further down the supply chain a shopping firm is, the murkier the situation and the easier it is for desperate or unscrupulous employers to exploit their isolated workforce.

However it is an issue the oil and gas industry will have to address, just as manufacturing companies like Apple or clothing firms like Nike have when pressed about abuses in their supply chains after they moved these to Asia.

One simple idea could be the establishing a global register of individual or company employers who have been caught using forced labor at sea and blacklisting them. By doing so the big firms in the oil and gas sector can set sub-contractors a standard they are expected to meet whatever ports they call at, and give them a centre to refer labor activists too.

By acting before a major scandal strikes, the oil and gas sector can stay ahead of the negative public reaction that has engulfed firms before during such disasters as the Deepwater Horizon accident. But burying the issue of workforce exploitation now would allow the practice of forced labor to embed itself deeper into the industry, making the reaction all the stronger when the scandal eventually came to the surface.



Neil Thompson
Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson is a freelance international relations analyst whose work has appeared in the Diplomat, the International Security Network, Geopolitical Monitor, The Independent and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and has lived in China for three years and is presently based in London.

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