Prioritizing Forced Labor in WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations

Humanity United, the McCain Institute, and the Human Trafficking Legal Center applaud today’s decision by the United States to uphold worker rights and human dignity by insisting that forced labor considerations be included in ongoing World Trade Organization (WTO) fisheries subsidies negotiations. 

US Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai made the announcement at a WTO convening of trade ministers working to finalize the 20-year negotiations on fisheries subsidies. There is consensus that these subsidies incentivize overfishing and labor exploitation, resulting in grave harm to people and the environment. Beyond the market distorting effects of subsidies, the practice of overfishing depletes fish stocks and perpetuates a reliance on worker exploitation and human rights abuses. We know that forced labor is endemic in fleets across the globe, where the most vulnerable workers fill poorly paid and risky jobs. These workers are forced to labor in harsh and dangerous conditions that strip them of their dignity and basic human rights. Addressing labor abuses in fishing is an imperative, as forced labor is pervasive across the industry worldwide.

As Ambassador Tai said, “Forced labor is a serious problem in the fisheries sector. It is a practice that affects economic competition; it is an unfair trade practice and an unconscionable exploitation. Acknowledging it as such is an important way that the WTO can positively impact the lives and livelihoods of our fishers and workers.”

Our three organizations are committed to ending the use of forced labor in global supply chains and we believe that this agreement on fishing subsidies presents a unique opportunity to acknowledge and address the impact of forced labor on global seafood supply chains.   

More broadly, we are also eager to see trade negotiations at the WTO used as a tool to end forced labor within supply chains. Trade remedies can improve the lives of workers across the globe. The U.S.’s position on this agreement is a step in the right direction and we hope other nations will join Ambassador Tai in this principled stance that puts worker dignity and welfare at the center.

We recognize that today’s announcement by Ambassador Tai is part of the US government’s stated commitment to ending forced labor around the world, including this week’s advisory for U.S. businesses whose supply chains run through Xinjiang, China, where Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities are subject to forced labor. It also comes on the heels of a June declaration by  G7 nations to ensure that global supply chains are free from forced labor. We support these efforts, as we know that forced labor in global supply chains is a systemic problem. It’s not unique to one country or corporation and forced labor also occurs here in the United States. 

Forced labor is a feature, not a bug, in global supply chains. 

We call on political leaders across the globe to adopt and enforce laws that prevent forced labor. We call on governments across the globe to prosecute forced labor. And we ask corporations to investigate their own business operations and eradicate labor exploitation in their supply chains. Governments and the private sector must take meaningful steps to fundamentally change the conditions under which people work.