WASHINGTON - Advocates for those who work in the world's oceans called on consumers to pay attention to the plight of workers who toil on the high seas to make seafood available.
"There's a lot of attention focused on seafood and our diet but not much attention paid to where our seafood comes from. The worker aspect of it is left out," said Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, which hosted a program on the issue Jan. 10 at its Washington headquarters.
The presentation centered around a series by The New York Times called "The Outlaw Ocean." The project focused on eight stories that documented the lawlessness that takes place aboard ships in some parts of the world where legal oversight is largely absent. The series highlight sex crimes, worker killings, kidnapping, slavery and the stranding of workers on boats or ships in addition to overfishing and spills of waste products, said reporter Ian Urbina, who wrote the stories and was part of the presentation. The series identifies "the diversity of crime out there" on the oceans, said Urbina, who traveled to 15 countries and five oceans for the project.
Urbina said sometimes there's a "blue-green divide" when it comes to organizations or groups concerned with the crimes that take place on the seas. The blue meaning unions concerned about worker issues, calling for better protection of workers, shedding light on slavery or sexual or financial exploitation, as well as human rights. The green meaning groups concerned with spills, environmental justice, the conditions for animals of the sea such as dolphins and whales. What's important, he said, is to shed light on all of these concerns and keep them at the forefront of governments and entities that can do something about them.
Jacqueline Smith, president of the Norwegian Seafarers Union, said during the presentation that advocates must do more to educate others on the issues. Though it's important to those in organizations that deal with labor and environmental issues, what's more important is to get consumers and agencies that can do something about it to cooperate, she said.
"There's a limit to how people listen to what we say," Smith said. "We need to raise awareness from the converted (those who know about the issues) and get it to the regulators and consumers."
But competing for the public's attention when there are so many issues can be daunting, she said. Even so, people should care about the conditions that workers suffer so they can put fish on consumers' tables. After all, they care about such things as fair trade coffee and other causes involving production of what they consume. And yet it's hard to keep the public's attention on issues, she said.
"What's here today is gone tomorrow," she said. "It's not sexy to talk about the same things."
Advocates want to propose events such as a campaign to inform consumers about the sources of the fish they eat and also to raise awareness about the suffering of seafaring workers.
The Catholic Church repeatedly has called for better conditions for those who work on the seas. Through its Apostleship of the Sea ministry, which oversees the spiritual and pastoral care of those working at sea, it has called on countries and agencies to find ways to safeguard the rights of workers.