The COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions for an increased risk of labor trafficking at sea. In 2021, many cargo ships were required to sit at sea for weeks until they were allowed to unload their supplies due to bottlenecks in global supply chains. This, in turn, created conditions where many captains altered how they pay their crews and honored their labor contracts. Several countries would not allow seafarers to disembark due to COVID-19 protocols, which made it more difficult for labor trafficking victims to ask for help. All around the world, this led to an environment that was ripe for labor abuses onboard maritime vessels.
One recent example was in May of 2022, when Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) was informed of the liberation of 12 seafarers from China at the Port of Longview, Washington. The US Coast Guard received a complaint that 12 crew members aboard the 623-foot-long cargo ship, Tai Honesty, had been stuck on the ship for more than 14 months, well after their labor contracts had expired.
Thanks to assistance from the Coast Guard and the International Transport Workers' Federation, these 12 crew members were able to leave the vessel while they were at the Port of Longview and a replacement crew was called in. However, with COVID-19 lockdowns in effect in China, they had to quarantine at a facility in Tanzania for several weeks before they were allowed to go back to their homes.
The very nature of international shipping makes it necessary for significant numbers of seafarers to be able to refresh their crews. But in the last few years, COVID-19 restrictions and border closures have seriously hampered this process, and many seafarers are unable to go home because they cannot get replaced by relief crews.
As a result, more seafarers are reporting that their contracts are being pushed to be extended beyond the original end date, forcing workers to stay onboard maritime vessels, and sometimes they receive less pay than they originally agreed to. But when dock workers receive human trafficking prevention training at seaports, they can learn how to manage these situations to help prevent labor trafficking at sea.
BEST’s human trafficking prevention training for seaport employees, Ports to Freedom, is critical, especially while the maritime industry is continuing to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. When employees on the docks at seaports receive training, more human trafficking victims at sea can get the assistance they need to be reunited with their families.