In response to labour and human rights violations onboard fishing vessels, the private sector is increasingly relying on market-based solutions in the form of voluntary, non-governmental social governance tools to improve working conditions for fishers. While the proliferation of these tools is relatively recent in fishing, there is substantial evidence from other sectors that these voluntary standards fail to transform working conditions. Yet, there remains an insistence on using market-based solutions to mitigate labour abuses in fishing despite the problem being a market failure. Using a human and labour-rights based analytical paradigm that underpins worker-centric processes, we constructed objective criteria to assess several voluntary standards against. Failing to include workers and commit to meaningful remedy, findings from the analysis suggests these voluntary non-governmental social governance tools are not able to ensure that human and labour rights are respected in a way that is consistent with state and international regulation or rigorous human rights due diligence. As a result, there is an urgent need for a transformational shift in the sector away from a worker-less reactive and adaptive corporate social responsibility strategy of doing less harm toward a fundamental commitment to redistributing power through a worker-driven social responsibility paradigm.
In response to governance gaps and continued reports of pervasive labour abuses on fishing vessels (e.g., , , , , ), there has been a relatively recent proliferation of voluntary, non-governmental social governance tools in the fishing sector, purportedly setting and enforcing norms and standards for working conditions and labour performance. This profusion of tools includes ethical standards, labeling systems, commitments, certification schemes, and codes of conduct, with performance evaluated through a plethora of social auditing strategies running the gamut from self, to private, regulation. While the genesis of these tools varies between private sector actors, NGO coalitions, and multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), they share four key commonalities in that: they are typically transnational, market-based (i.e., they rely on market sanctions driven by private sector actors), voluntary, and independent of government oversight or regulation that should underpin human rights due diligence (HRDD) , , , , , , , . We term this proliferation of ‘tools’ a ‘hydra’ as akin to the Lernean Hydra, in Greek legend, which could grow new heads as quickly as Hercules cut them off.
The hydra of non-governmental social governance tools being produced will be an ineffective means for increasing respect for and improving human and labour rights within seafood supply chains in the absence of transformations in the following areas: 1) the business models of seafood businesses; 2) the long supply chains within the seafood industry; 3) worker participation in the governance of seafood supply chains; and 4) the widespread adoption of ILO C188 and similar laws and conventions by fishing nations. The tools assessed in this research have been developed by bodies that have vested interests in the continuation of a social responsibility culture that does not ensure accountability, nor create real liability for those exploiting fishers. These bodies avoid measures that would make seafood supply chains transparent and traceable and keep failing to give workers or their representatives a seat at the decision-making table or in the verification processes. While for those operators who already respect their workers, these tools can provide a benchmark to maintain good practice, unfortunately, for those who do not, these tools are a minor and easily circumvented (and voluntary) inconvenience, which can provide public relations and financial benefits to the companies, with no benefits ‘trickling down’ to workers. For criminal operations, these tools pose no significant threat at all.