Using technology to eliminate forced labour on the ocean

An ILO roundtable discussion raises important questions on the use of digital innovation to fight forced labour in fishing

Feature | 26 September 2022
“There are too many fishing vessels for governments to inspect…they need to conduct risk assessments to identify the highest-risk vessels to target, right?” explained Natalie Tellwright, an analyst with OceanMind, a not-for-profit organisation supporting marine enforcement and compliance.

As is the case with many of the actors at the recent Virtual Roundtable on Digital Technology including Global Fishing Watch, Geeks Without Frontiers, Diginex, iRespond, and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, OceanMind was established to fight illegal fishing. They are now adapting their technologies and know-how to address labour in addition to environmental abuses on board fishing vessels. “We're taking the same approach for fisheries inspections and applying it to labour inspections,” she said, referring to three adapted indicators used to narrow down vessels for inspecting for forced labour: 1) working hours, 2) trip length and 3) transhipment.

But how can we know how many hours fishers are working on a boat stationed on the high seas? And how can we know if transhipment (a process by which smaller boats take catch from and provide supplies to a larger boat to reduce the cost of going to port) is happening if the crew don’t even have internet access? Satellite tracking is one way. The Automatic Identification System was designed to avoid collisions on the high seas and Vessel Monitoring Systems was adapted for fishing vessels to support fisheries management at the national level. There’s also satellite imaging for vessels that turn off their tracking systems to “go dark” and conduct illegal activities. Combining these data and using Artificial Intelligence and machine learning incorporating standards set by the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention No. 188 and ILO indicators of forced labour, algorithms have been developed that could make a port inspector’s job easier.

To take stock of the recent inclusion of fishers’ rights in the agendas of digital technology actors traditionally focused on environmental matters, the ILO’s 8.7 Accelerator Lab put together a mapping of organisations developing digital solutions to address forced labour in the fisheries sector.

These cutting-edge digital innovators were then invited to the first ILO roundtable of its kind to share knowledge, discuss challenges, solutions and areas for collaboration. “We want to foster a community of like-minded actors who are currently working towards the same goals… but in different parts of the world and with different methodologies. If we can foster dialogue between these global innovators, we can avoid duplication and address remaining challenges and gaps in knowledge, ensuring that these tools are truly helping ILO's constituents on the ground”, explained Alix Nasri, Global Coordinator for the 8.7 Accelerator Lab, a new ILO initiative aimed at speeding up progress towards ending child labour and forced labour in line with UN SDG Target 8.7..

Circling back to the inspection problem of “too many boats”, Duncan Copeland, the Executive Director of Trygg Mat Tracking, or TMT, echoed the need to “best focus on the ones where we think there's going to be the most problems”. The “how” of that search is where technology is helping, but Copeland stressed the imperative of “ground truthing” and involving fisheries enforcement authorities in their design, to make sure that models and tools are “informed by what is really happening on the ground”.

TMT has developed a fisheries intelligence database and analytical platform called FACT that integrates global data sources to monitor and analyse vessel identities, authorizations, compliance histories (fishing and associated crimes, including labour violations) and linked companies.

The “who” was also highlighted as a major issue by many of the participants due to the divide between fisheries inspectorates and labour inspectorates in most countries despite the fishing industry being one of the largest sources of employment with an estimated 600 million people dependent on fisheries for their livelihoods.

“Merging the gap between labour, fisheries and maritime enforcement actors, then merging the gap between those actors and the world of tech is one of the strategies of the 8.7 Accelerator Lab”, emphasised Alix Nasri.

Although the panellists were brought together to present their tools and ideas for further improvement, they also were asked to consider many questions the ILO hopes to raise through this community. For starters, can we trust artificial intelligence for use in detecting forced labour? Some tools are for use by fishers themselves, but can we expect them to trust the systems that are very often developed without them? How do we get fishers to trust those tools and raise complaints through them? What can the ILO be doing differently to support detection? The global union federation for the fishing sector, the International Transport and Workers' Federation also attended the roundtable and shared their experiences with the development of their ITF Seafarers App Look up a Ship, Inspector or Union. They stressed that involving fishers in the development of these technologies is paramount. 

Ultimately, technology will not help if fishers do not have a voice in the first place."

Rossen Karavatchev, Fisheries Section Coordinator, International Transport Workers' Federation
“How can we support making available court decisions on labour rights and forced labour cases from national court decisions on labour rights violations and forced labour so that they can be used in the databases and models developed by digital actors?” Nasri asked all participants to consider these questions ahead of the next roundtable.

Since the roundtable, the 8.7 Accelerator Lab team presented these tools to the South African Maritime Safety Authority, currently responsible for labour inspections on board national and foreign fishing vessels in South Africa during a mission to Cape Town, and will continue to do this in other countries. The gap between the tech world and the governments that need support in monitoring forced labour at sea is starting to close.

Read more about the ILO 8.7 Accelerator Lab.

Find out more about ILO’s work in fishing.