South Korea’s migrant fishing labor reforms need more work, EJF says

A South Korean fishing vessel
A South Korean fishing vessel | Photo courtesy of EJF
2 Min

The South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries' updated plan to improve working conditions for migrant laborers onboard the nation’s distant-water fishing vessels still needs work to ensure its effectiveness, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).

The government’s “Plan for Further Enhancement for Working Conditions of Migrant Fishers on Distant-Water Fishing Vessels,” released 29 March 2024 after four months of joint consultation with civil society and the fishing industry, is a step toward closing “deep inequalities and removing loopholes that allow crew to be abused at sea,” EJF CEO and Founder Steve Trent said.

“We applaud this progress and the inclusive manner in which it was made, thanks to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. It represents meaningful progress for fisheries transparency, for human rights, and for a more sustainable ocean,” Trent said in a press release. “However, without a strong legal foundation, there is a risk that these policies will not be fully implemented.”

The plan is the end product of a three-year effort to develop regulations to improve working conditions onboard its distant-water fleet, which has been accused of labor abuses, human rights violations, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, including through EJF reports in 2021 and 2023.

According to the EJF, which was an official consulting party on the plan, the new rules institute a maximum voyage length of 12 months, forbid contracts with recruitment agencies that deduct crews’ salaries and the retaining of worker passports, and create an online portal for crew so they can report violations. The South Korean government has also agreed to share information gathered from its implementation and monitoring of the plan, including labor-related inspections, with the EJF.

The EJF said the plan still lacks measures to address wage discrepancies for migrant crew and ensure crew work reasonable work hours while at sea.

“EJF also argues that the recruitment process for migrant crew should be more transparent and better monitored to enable the Korean government to accurately oversee this complex, cross-border movement of workers,” it said.

EJF also criticized the weak legal status of the plan and called for the South Korean government to embed it into national legislation and provide enough funding to ensure it can be implemented effectively. It also called for the South Korean government to ratify the International Labour Organization Work in Fishing Convention (ILO C188), which it said provides governments around the world with a legal framework to ensure decent working conditions on fishing vessels.

“This would give reassurance to market states importing Korean seafood products that they were caught by fishers working safely and with dignity, which is why more states are now requiring this ratification from the nations they buy from,” it said. “Korea has the resources and the appetite for leadership to do this; it should do so now, as part of a broader commitment to the Global Charter for Fisheries Transparency.”

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