How the Washington State Department of Ecology is Combating Labor Trafficking at Sea with BESTs Ports to Freedom

December 11, 2023
Photo credit: Washington State Department of Ecology. Oil Transfer Inspector Lead, Jason Reichert discusses plans with another Inspector on the bridge of a ship

Human trafficking is a global issue that affects millions of people every year, with labor trafficking being a particularly pervasive problem in the maritime industry. The victims of labor trafficking can often find themselves trapped on ships, far from the reach of help and support. Fortunately, this past summer, the Washington State Department of Ecology has taken a significant step forward to help stop human trafficking at sea by providing BEST’s Ports to Freedom training to their inspectors who routinely board large vessels to inspect the ships going in and out of Washington’s waterways.  

The Washington State Department of Ecology is dedicated to protecting Washington waters from the threat of oil spills.  Their Spills Program has a team of inspectors who visit large commercial vessels to determine whether the vessel poses a risk of an oil spill to our state.  During their inspections, they engage meaningfully with vessel crews to discuss marine safety and oil pollution prevention. They also regularly provide vessels with educational materials and training aids on how to reduce oil spill risk.  Inspectors have a first-hand look at the ship’s operation while onboard, and BEST’s Ports to Freedom training is helping inspectors learn how to recognize the signs of human trafficking. It provides excellent information to boost situational awareness about the realities of human trafficking so inspectors can keep this in mind as they complete their environmental protection work onboard ships.  

Labor trafficking occurs when individuals are coerced or deceived into work situations where they are exploited and deprived of their basic rights. Unfortunately, this form of exploitation is all too common within the maritime industry. Victims, who are often lured with promises of well-paying jobs or false opportunities, quickly realize the nightmarish reality of their situation when they find themselves confined to ships for extended periods and forced to work with little opportunity and often no way to escape.

Working on ships can be grueling, and victims are subjected to physical and emotional abuse, long hours, and abysmally low pay or even unpaid labor. They are often denied access to food and medical care, subjected to hazardous working conditions, and isolated from the outside world. It's a devastating plight that leaves human trafficking victims vulnerable and in desperate need of intervention.

“We’re looking forward to incorporating BEST’s training into our inspectors’ tool set,” said Sara Thompson, Vessel and Oil Transfer Unit Supervisor for Ecology’s Spills Program. “We are frequently onboard oceangoing vessels, and it’s important for us to be aware of the human trafficking situations crewmembers could be facing.”

While ports serve as vital hubs for trade and commerce, they also play a crucial role in intervening and providing assistance to trafficking victims. When ships dock at seaports, it is often the only chance human trafficking victims have to escape their exploiters and receive the help they require.

However, the path to receiving aid is often fraught with challenges. The limited time spent at port and the strict control exercised by the ship's crew can make it extremely difficult for human trafficking victims to be able to seek help. Additionally, the complexity of international maritime law and jurisdictional issues can further complicate the rescue and support process.

Despite these obstacles, the Washington State Department of Ecology, in collaboration with BEST, has taken a promising step forward in combating human trafficking at sea. By taking BEST’s Ports to Freedom training, inspectors with the Washington State Department of Ecology will learn how to recognize and report the signs of human trafficking.