An investigation by environmental groups into fishing trawlers off the coast of West Africa has turned up shocking work conditions that are akin to slavery.  Seamen on these trawlers were subjected to forced labor and serious human rights abuses.

The investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation found that the workers on these boats lived in appalling conditions.  They were incarcerated for weeks, months and even years and were not allowed to leave the ship.  They had been confined without pay.  There was no availability of clean water and their documents had been confiscated.

The Environmental Justice Foundation found several vessels operating without appropriate licenses off the coast of Guinea and Sierra Leone.  The catch from these ships ends up on some of the fanciest dining tables in Europe.  Many of the trawlers were licensed to import to Europe, in spite of their horrible hygiene and work safety standards.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, they were only investigating these trawlers to crack down on illegal fishing.  However, once the inspectors were on board the trawlers, they were shocked at the work conditions they found.  Some of the crew members were forced to live and work in areas with ceilings so low that they could not even stand up straight.  In some of the holds of the vessels, the temperatures were as high as 40 degrees to 45 degrees.  There was no ventilation in the holds.  Most of the crew members were Africans, while the rest were from Asia, including China and Vietnam.

To any maritime lawyer, conditions on these trawlers would seem similar to the kinds of work conditions that seamen faced before the Jones Act was passed.  In the days before the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, seamen were little more than bonded laborers, forced to work long hours, for little or no pay, and subjected to physical abuse by their masters and captains.  That situation changed significantly after the passing of the Jones Act, which provided for greater rights for seamen, who now had the right to hold their maritime employers accountable for injuries on the job.