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155 000 victims of modern slavery in SA

The Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

The Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 4, 2020


CAPE TOWN - Slave labour is growing without check in the fishing and agricultural sectors, resulting in widespread abuse of workers and human trafficking.

A senior analyst on human trafficking and forced labour at the non-profit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Irina Bukharin, says fishermen working on distant-water fishing vessels, harvesting fishes on high seas, are more vulnerable to poor working conditions.

“They are especially vulnerable when they are at sea, unable to leave and less likely to have access to functioning means of communication with the outside world,” she says.

NGO workers have described the exploitation of fishermen off of South Africa’s shore as being “rife and rampant”. Many cite the lack of regulatory oversight and the weight of the multibillion-dollar fishing industry as reasons for the widespread abuse of workers.

“The multi crimes affecting the global fisheries sector range from illegal fishing and extraction of marine resources to human trafficking and forced labour, fraud, forgery, corruption, money laundering and tax and customs evasion,”

Types of modern slavery. Graphic by Keagan Le Grange

“Much of the illegal global multi-crime activity linked with fishing is happening off the coast of South Africa, Namibia, and the east coast of Africa. The fishing vessels don’t need to go into our harbours, they make their transshipments offshore. It’s all happening in front of us,” says Professor Hennie van As, who is the director of Fish Force, Africa’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Academy.

According to data from C4ADS, the port of Cape Town is one of the most common port states visited by fishing vessels employing forced labour. Between 2015 and this year, about 11 fishing vessels using forced labour visited the port.

In 2014, there was a documented case of slave labour on foreign tuna fishing vessels in South African waters where the crew, mainly Indonesian and Taiwanese workers, worked for three to five years without being paid.

According to the Global Slavery Index report released in 2018, there were an estimated 155 000 people living in modern slavery in South Africa. With the agriculture sector having the highest number of victims of forced labour.

Linda Lipparoni, the chief executive of Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trading Association says that while forced and bonded labour in the South African agricultural sector often goes undetected, they are committed to improving labour conditions for farm workers.

“Over the last 10 years, the wine and fruit industries have been committed to improving labour conditions for farm workers and have demonstrated this commitment through the participation in ethical audits and continuous improvement programmes.”

Slave labour, specifically for agricultural work, in South Africa goes as far back as 1658, when the first slaves arrived in the Cape.

By 1760, slaves formed the backbone of the Cape economy, especially in Cape Town and on the grain and wine farms around Cape Town. In KwaZulu-Natal, between 1860 and 1911, Indian indentured labourers were brought from India to work in sugar cane farms.

However, by 1911, India prohibited the indentured labour to Natal because of the ill treatment of its citizens in the province.

According to the Iziko Museum in Cape-Town, almost all skilled work in the city was done by slaves. In addition, slaves sold and bartered goods on their masters’ behalf in the town. Many were fishermen. The wages were paid to the owner, but occasionally owners allowed their slaves to keep some of the money.

In efforts to eliminate forced and child labour in the country, last year the government launched the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons National Policy Framework

"Trafficking in persons is by no means a recent phenomenon,“ said Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs John Jeffery during the launch. ”It is rooted in South Africa's historical landscape and is fundamentally enabled by the country's deep structural inequalities. A systemic response and culture shift is needed – one that radically restrains the demand for cheap labour and sex, and severs any hint of corruption and compromise.”

Although research indicates that, despite assistance from the NGO community, the SAPS had difficulties properly identifying victims of human trafficking during law enforcement activities.

Contact details of organisations to report suspicions of/or forced labour exploitation to:

The South African National Human Trafficking Resource Line: Contact: 0800 222 777 |

The South Africa National Human Trafficking Resource Line is able to assist with any queries from either producer or farm management as well as from potential victims of forced labour.

The Salvation Army: Toll-free number: 08000 RESCU (73728) |